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 as always is wanted.

 

Chapter 25 Replacements and Remembrance Part 1

 


            Specialist Agent Sophie Addison frowned as a technician unpacked their equipment. She kept her arms crossed over her chest. Sweat beaded down her back.


            Science and Technology Section Agent First Class Jared Dirac kept a level gaze at the demon. His orientation briefing was very clear, and he could see a prime warning sign: her tail was slowly swishing back and forth at a low angle. The specialist's increased hostility was strange, he had a much easier time working with the Brood Mother. " Specialist can you move your arms?" he respectfully asked.


            Sophie complied. "Does it have to look... that way?"


            "You're already wearing a skirt," Ukyou absently noted.


            Looking past her armored vest, and the special web gear to hold the oversize 17mm magazines, Sophie sighed. "At least these make some sense." She tugged at one of the flexibly-mounted Kevlar pleats, containing an armor plate inset in each. Combined with the chest and back plates, modified for succubus physiology, the armor's weight would be debilitating on a human.


            Then add in a twenty kilogram rifle, six additional magazines, each weighing eight kilograms, a six kilogram sidearm and spare magazines for that, a helmet, a pair of reinforced boots, and various other equipment. It had taken a while to actually, feel the weight, but after the first couple kilometers she started to notice. It took double that for her to start sweating. Though Dirac's invention provided a nice distraction; it kept Sophie from thinking too deeply on what her body was capable of.


            "Specialist!" Ukyou barked.


            "Sorry." Sophie shook her head. "I was just thinking."


            "The change does that," Ukyou allowed. "That's why we're getting you trained now. Don't want you to get all introspective in battle."


            "I can imagine, the gender change must do a lot," Dirac noted as he ran a diagnostic on the device. Starting to extend the antennae, he looked up and noticed that both demons had still, straight tails. "Uh."


            "Born female." Ukyou pointed to herself and Sophie. "Though in her case, her hair changed to a sane color."


            "At least platinum blonde can pass as a natural shade." Sophie examined Dirac's device. "Why? Do Pattern Silver devices require ribbons and bows?"


            Dirac looked down at the device, which bore and unnatural similarity to a pair of large bows with trailing ribbons. "Actually the Pattern Silver contribution is quite small." He pointed to a small plastic box. "The antennae was my doing."


            Sophie rubbed her forehead. "How did this get past your CO?"


            "The Silver devices have a major limitation. Their range is pitiful. By adding in our own jamming antennas we can get a device that gives actual area denial."


            "And they have to be half a meter long?" Sophie asked.


            Dirac sighed. "Do you want it to work or to look good?"


            "My concern is that you seem to want to make it look good."


            "The antennas are delicate, sheathing them in Kevlar prevents damage."


            "Maybe trying to merge WIC tech and Silver magic got to you," Ukyou smirked.


            Dirac gave a slight nod. "That was a concern. We set a battery of tests, just to make sure the devices didn't have any adverse effects or transmissions. Another team then tested the testing equipment and the testers."


            Ukyou blinked. "Let it be known I'm saying this as a former Acolyte of the Assembly of man: I bow to your paranoia," the blonde demon lowered her head.


            "These devices are using a magical apparatus as a replacement generator. As a pure black box, it can create the same signals we use in our own inter-dim jamming equipment. These signals are then broadcast via those antennas."


            Dirac looked at the jamming rig. "However, a black box... allows for other features. Much of the delay came from our validation procedures. At the very least, this has given us more insight on how to miniaturize our own technology."


            "How is this thing powered?" Sophie asked. "I know that's a major size limitation of our jammers."


            "That's the other advantage, but ultimately limitation, of the Silver system. Which is why I want to test it on you," Dirac stated.


            "Magic power?"


            "Essentially." Dirac caught a glance at the agent's tail. It was curled just at the end in a slight hook and hung to one side. "It uses the power of a 'Sailor Senshi' to function. Both as an easy power source and as a security measure."


            Her tail dropping, a frown bloomed on Sophie's face.


            "That's right. You're an honest-to-goodness magical girl," Ukyou smirked.


            Rubbing her forehead, and one of her horns, the veteran Operations Agent sighed. "Fine. Just pin the damn thing on."


            "Yes, Specialist." Dirac picked up the forward of the antennae sets and after moving her web-harness, threaded it through some mounting slits. After repeating the process on the back antennae he checked their wiring and put the slim control box next to Sophie's radio.


            Sophie looked down at herself. She then moved her arms around and practiced moving her legs. "Well, they're not that in the way," she allowed.


            "Sticking them out further away from your body would have better reception," Dirac said after returning to his equipment. "So would making them longer."


            "Then just make them longer and have them run along my body," Sophie frowned.


            "You're not tall enough, and it's not like we can shorten an antenna by folding it up a few times," Dirac explained.


            "Mom spent a very frustrating afternoon with Agent Dirac," Ukyou noted.


            Jared blinked. "She was annoyed?"


            "Mom didn't want to scare you." Ukyou grinned broadly. "Also, she knew the testing was important."


            "That's good." Dirac recalled the way the briefing described Special Contractor Ranma Saotome and the way the diminutive redheaded demoness confidently and professionally carried herself. The briefing nailed it. WIC Toronto had a Brood Mother. One that not only enjoyed working with the Company but was actively and eagerly using and adapting WIC methods, training, and technology.


            "To be fair, that getup-" Ukyou pointed to Sophie. "-is a lot better than Mom's old uniform."


            "A micro-miniskirt and bikini top is still better than what the human Silvers wear." Sophie gave a slight sigh.


            "Still the bows, I'm sorry, ribbons really make a statement," Ukyou smirked.


            Dirac coughed. "The activation switch is the red one on the side. You'll see that the controls and indicators are those on the main panel on your basic Jammer. I kept the design as familiar as possible, but really you're going to use it as a black box in combat. Turn it on when you need it, off when you don't want to emit exotic fields."


            Sophie flipped the switch and saw an orange LED light up followed shortly by a green one. A tingling grew in her horns and teeth. Similar to the background "fuzz" she now felt on base, but it was more immediate and close, somewhat like having an electronic toothbrush strapped to her breasts and another just above her butt. A numerical indicator on the control box ticked up and held steady at forty-five. It was then that Sophie felt the slight... draining sensation as the little box sipped power off of her and fed it into the Kevlar-sheathed antennae.


            Dirac looked at his scanner. "Okay, stable generation. Good range."


            Sophie bit her lip, the jammers gave an... odd sensation. "So, it's working?" she asked realizing the big downside to a body with enhanced senses; everything was so very... immersive.


            "Yes, output is nearly identical to the measurements I got from Miss Saotome."


            "My output is the same as hers?" Sophie raised an eyebrow.


            "The device has limits on how much input it'll take. These tests are all on the default settings. You can increase it, but that'll be more draining."


            "So it's possible to increase the range?" Sophie put a hand up to a horn. The generator's vibrations did feel... odd.


            "If you have the power for it," Dirac shrugged. "We'll need to do more testing to see how much you can put out."


            Ukyou's face split into a broad smirk. "So you're recommending some endurance testing?"


            "That would be handy," Jarred admitted.


            Sophie winced. "Shit."


            Ukyou nodded. "Get your gun, we've got some more running."


            The two Company agents sighed and started gathering their gear.


            "You're coming too?" Ukyou asked Dirac. She had expected Sophie to, finally, start getting exasperated.


            "I've got to monitor the jammer; so I've gotta keep up with you."


            "Good luck," Sophie checked her rifle. "It feels like Blondie over here's been pushing me to my limit."


            "Joy." Jared slipped his scanners on and followed the demons out of the room


            "That's exactly what we're doing." Ukyou rolled her eyes. "You got this shiny new body, we need to show you exactly what that means."


            "Like pushing me out of a helicopter," Sophie stated.


            "Misako was there to catch you if you froze."


            "That's how you learn how to fly?"


            Sophie turned to the thin technician. "They're demons."


            "You're a demon, too."


            Sophie lifted her tail and swished it back and forth.


            "Yes, yes." Ukyou noted. "You know it, but you don't know what that really means."


            Outside in the pre-dawn light, Dirac watched as the blonde demoness fussed over the black-haired one's armor, weapons, and equipment.


            "Okay, I guess that's enough weight. Now get going!" Ukyou prodded Sophie and the two started running down the training facility.


            Dirac gave a light sigh and ran after the two demons. At least this was a relatively... normal assignment.

 

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

 


            Grumbling, Inspector Richard Rebus pushed his cabin's door open. After walking a couple paces into the one-room building, the tackle box and rod dropped from his hands and he drew his sidearm, looked through the pre-dawn gloom, and aimed at his recliner.


             A low chuckle came from the worn chair in the "living room" area. "I think your boss was right. You do need a vacation." The dark suited man paused to scratch behind the ears of a large Labrador retriever that was lying next to the chair. "Or was it Fred here?"


            "Normally he greets me," Rebus said keeping his gun aimed on the figure. The man was thin and dressed in a dark suit. His face was obscured in darkness. On his lapel, a silver maple-leaf pin reflected the meager light.


            "He's a good dog," the man absently said.


            "Who are you?" Rebus asked as he sidestepped and flicked on the lights. The additional light was not very... illuminating. The man's face and hair were in that carefully-tended non-descript style that Rebus found worrying. The suit was black; the tie was black; his glasses... were black.


            "I apologize for the theatrics," the man said as he slipped off his sunglasses. "As for my name Gagnon will do."


            "So who do you work for?"


            Gagnon laughed. "You of all people know how... uninformative that answer would be. Who isn't working for the government these days?"


            "Spook then?"


            The black-suited man gave an approving smile and leaned back. "I am sorry about causing you that mess. Any luck?"


            "Only a couple nibbles."


            "This late in the season they're not really biting."


            Never taking his eyes, or gun, off Gagnon, Rebus closed the door and sat down in the seat across from his. "Fred come."


            Gagnon stopped petting, and let the dog return to his master.


            "So, are we going to use fishing as a metaphor?"


            "Oh, nothing so tiresome."


            "So brass tacks then? I get put on a bit of leave because of my interest in some government contractors and a rash of terrorism."


            "And you were keeping your hobby so well concealed. No angry accusations, no paranoid rants, no trying to reveal the truth." Gagnon shook his head. "But next time, be more careful when looking at the exact time Joint Task Force Two arrives on scene."


            Rebus sighed. "It's not a terribly good conspiracy. The uniforms don't even match."


            "Trusting eyewitness reports now?"


            "Dozens of explosions, several running gun battles, collapsed buildings, even more fire damage, and a helicopter crash. What happened that night?"


            Gagnon folded his hands.


            "This isn't like some weird cult taking hostages in a toy store, or a bunch of sociopaths cutting up bodies, or even like some running gun-battle in a building or two."


            Looking out the window, Gagnon watched the sun begin to rise. "We're only a few kilometers from Algonquin Provincial Park."


            "That was simply a training exercise. They even simulated a roadside bombing and an ambush." Rebus dryly stated. "You can't hide everything."


            "No, but you'll be amazed at what one can hide. Especially when people... don't want to know." Gagnon sighed. "Look, you're bright. I'm sure you've figured out that there is an... oversight to all this."


            "Yes, there's a war starting."


            "There's always been a war. It's just most people don't want to deal with it. They can't accept it. They can't accept the wars they're told about."


            "I'm a cop. You think I need convincing that people are panicky, lazy, self-centered nitwits?"


            Gagnon chuckled.


            "So why the cloak and dagger? I'm a little bit shocked you weren't smoking when I came in."


            "Who do you think I work for?" Gagnon cheerfully asked.


            Rebus coughed. "Right. You want me to give up my own theories, that way you can tailor your story to fit. No."


            "Fine. I'm going to pull out my ID." Gagnon slowly opened his suit coat and pulled a leather wallet out of his shirt pocket and tossed it onto the coffee table.


            Without taking his eyes off the spook, Rebus grabbed the wallet. "Huh, not bad quality. But could you have picked a more realistic name?"


            "Bah, Andre's popularity has waned ever since he released 'Andre Gagnon au Centre Molson'."


            "An obviously fake name does not reassure me that you're really a CSIS agent."


            "For obvious reasons I can't take you to our Toronto, or even Ottawa, offices."


            "Obvious?" Rebus sighed, though he made it a point to memorize the numbers on the identification badge. "Still trying to get me to reveal my conclusions to you."


            "You're going to have to accept it. There's certain things I can't just tell you. That is something you should understand."


            Rebus sighed. "Go on."


            "Are you familiar with Faust?"


            "The play or a metaphorical deal with the devil from the play?"


            Gagnon made a bitter smile.


            "Back to this game then?' Rebus petted his dog. "I note there's something we've both avoided saying. An organization." An organization that, publically, is a defense contractor. One that had been hired to help train and provide new equipment for JTF2. One that conveniently happened to open business in Toronto just before the surge in violence. One that has a disturbing amount of latitude at various crime scenes. One that, of course, has to be operating with the permission of the government. Rebus thought to himself.


            Gagnon nodded. "Of course."


            "So far what you've hinted at leads to some... unpleasant conclusions."


            "It's only the best among a whole slew of bad options," Gagnon assured.


            "Yes, I took that into consideration."


            "So you have to wonder. Why is a spook bothering a nosy homicide detective?"


            Rebus stared and when Gagnon did not continue; he sighed. "I'm alive. So you didn't want to kill me. If you were going to warn me to keep my nose out of things, you wouldn't have given me any hints."


            "I thought you weren't going to tell me your theories?" Gagnon smiled.


            "You're afraid. Which brings us to why you're here, and what you want from me."


            Gagnon tapped the side of his nose.


            "So, it comes down to what you want me to do." Rebus paused. "How paranoid are you? Are you worried what will happen if I change my behavior? If I change the style of my investigation?"


            Rebus studied Gagnon's face. "If that were the case, you wouldn't expect me to change my methods, but if you simply wanted the status quo you would not be here. So you must want something from me."


            Gagnon inclined his head slightly.


            "You also want something that you can't simply take. If that were possible you'd just spy on me. No, you need me to do something, and you need to help me do it."


            "Quite a lot of deduction. Sure you're not going to tell me your theories?"


            Patting his dog, Rebus sighed. "Broadly speaking, if the name Andre Gagnon causes a stir at CSIS then you might be legit. As legit as a person in your... profession can be."


            "Is that a Yes, then?"


            "It's not a No." Rebus clarified. "What's really fascinating is that instead of your own black-suited goons, you decided to contact a local when he was far from the city."


            Gagnon waited for a few seconds. "Oh? Not going to explain why you think that? The reason is obvious. I don't want to risk having me be seen with you in the city."


            "The conclusion interests me less than the reasoning that prompted it."


            "You were picked for your tenacity." Gagnon chuckled.


            "I thought it was because I had enough interest in the events to start digging and was experienced enough to keep it discrete."


            "Yes, people expect you to go out and try to piece it together. They already know your agenda."


            "Again, what do you want from me and what can you give me?" Rebus leaned back, keeping his gun ready.


            "You'll know what I want. Believe me, you'll know it if you find it."


            "How do I separate the horrible secrets you know to be true from the ones you fear to be true?


            "That's where my help comes in. I am... limited in what I can say, but I can put you on the right path."


            "And that's why you're not just secretly watching me? You want to make sure I don't give up, don't fall into a blind alley."


            "And make sure you're not shut up." Gagnon straightened a cuff. "There was talk of transferring you to Vancouver. Thankfully that was pushed aside. It would have been far too crude and wasteful."


            "Subtle and efficiency minded? This really is a black bag operation."


            Gagnon laughed. "Oh no, most secret programs crassly fritter away resources. Truth be told, it's not the lack of oversight that worries me, but the excess in competence."


            "I see." Rebus paused and lowered his gun. "Start from the top. Tell me everything you can."

 

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

 


            Giving a slight smile, Ranma approached the waterfront. The sounds of the street rapidly diminished and were replaced by the sound of water hitting the seawall below the concrete wall that served as a railing.


            Leaning on it was a woman of average height with her long brown hair tied above one ear and set so it spilled over her left cheek and shoulder. "Punctual," the woman stiffly noted.


            "I'm actually several minutes late," Ranma noted, placing a small cooler between them, on the wall. "Nice coat," the redhead said, examining the long, brown oilskin garment.


            "Must we suffer through pleasantries? I'm not like that inept poseur you delight in tormenting."


            Ranma turned to the woman and gave a warm smile. "Don't think that way. She doesn't deserve to be tormented. I tolerated her because-" the demon tapped the cooler idly. "-well, because she was precious to someone I had a financial interest in not upsetting."


            The brunette looked at the box.


            "No, my dear, dear, Galina A'deen." Ranma's eyes twinkled. She wagered that the assassin would presume it was some kind of insurance, which was amusing. No doubt. the Russian had prepared for various contingencies. "You don't deserve to be brushed aside, you deserve my full attention."


            Galina stared past the demon's violet eyes. "Why the meeting? We got your message."


            "Yes, but you may not believe it, or you may think that it'll make great blackmail against us. Hand over the princess or we'll summon monsters from beyond," Ranma gave a cold laugh.


            "Do you think we're suicidal?"


            Ranma smirked.


            "Do you think we'd doom all of humanity just to make the mission easier?"


            Turning slightly to catch the scent coming from the water, the redhead shrugged. "We felt we needed to show you just how serious we are."


            Galina frowned, waiting for the demon to give her big reveal.


            "It's a question of priorities, and we have to do what we have to do." She gave the cooler-lid a slight tap.


            "So what's in the box?"


            "A bribe," the redhead smiled and pushed it forward.


            "You think we can be bought off?" Galina scoffed.


            "I know you can be bought off. That's how assassins work. Personally I'm torn. I'd like to be able to focus on important threats, but I'd also like to eat your liver."


            "Fine, show me your offer." Galina mostly suppressed a sigh.


            "Now, I know that you're not doing this just for the money but.." Ranma popped the lid off the cooler and tilted it so the contents faced the cyborg.


            Galina stared. Surprising herself, she found herself shocked.


            "I decided to go with something you'd recognize." The demon's smile nearly split her face. "Is your little optical scan complete? Take it, perform all the tests you want on it, on her."


            "She trusted you." Galina stated, a mix of jealousy and admiration in her voice.


            Ranma nodded. "Made the job very easy. You can still see the shock in her eyes."


            Galina's face hardened.


            "Sorry it had to end this way, but you weren't the only one being paid to kill her. This way we both win."


            Galina looked up from the severed head to the demoness.


            "Oh? Or is there more to this little mission of yours than money?" Ranma's wide grin broke into a series of deep chuckles. After a few seconds of laughing, she straightened herself back up. "If I'd have known you'd react like this, I'd have taken the time to wrap the box, maybe put on a nice bow and a card."


            Ranma tilted her head slightly. "How much do you need to claim the money? If you need the rest tell us, before dinner."


            "Shocked you haven't eaten her already." Galina dryly stated. "And the others?"


            "Clueless, they think their princess was moved to a safe location." Ranma's broad grin returned. "Want 'em?"


            "Why?"


            "Because the stupid brat thought she could wish it all better. She thought that things would work out, that she could wish away the bad people. She thought you and your friends weren't a real threat. She thought that my friends, my family would spill their blood, sacrifice their lives to appease her delusions." Ranma scoffed. "Did you expect me to keep protecting her?"


            Her hand flexing, Galina looked at the head.


            "Sure, it could be a trick. That's why I'm handing it over. Run your little tests, confirm that she's dead, then leave."


            "So you just want us gone? You think you can just kill our target and we'll leave?"


            "Isn't that how hired assassins work? Of course you don't have to leave. We can use people like you, people like your team, or maybe we can just kill each other." Ranma purred.


            "I'll run the tests," Galina said closing the lid on the cooler.


            "You do that, then you call me with what you want to do." Ranma shrugged and started walking away. The demoness smiled, no matter what happened, things would be much simpler from now on. After a few paces she reached into her coat.


            Frowning at the cooler Galina was blown back when the box exploded in a dull flash. She could tell from her sensors that the damage was minimal. Her attempt to get up was cutoff by the demoness landing on her chest.


            The redhead's claws sunk into her chassis and started to carve. "Sorry, couldn't resist," she purred.


            "Ranma!" a blonde woman shouted into the demon's ear.


            The redhead lifted her head in irritation. "What?"

 
            "Were you paying attention?" the blonde asked.


            "No, I was napping," Ranma narrowed her eyes and looked at the blonde's head.


            "And you berate me for being unprofessional," Usagi sighed.


            "Well, you are." Ranma shrugged, still keeping her gaze skull-ward.


            "What are you looking at?"


            "Oh, just wondering how big that brain of yours is."


            "So now I'm dumb?"


            "It's not that, just thinking about how many explosives I could fit up there."


            Usagi's laughter was killed by Ranma's direct, level stare. The blonde swallowed, and Setsuna shifted her stance. "You're serious?" the princess asked.


            Ranma kept eye contact and set her jaw.


            "You're still alive," Setsuna reminded. "DarkStar's not one to mince words." She crossed her thin arms over her reduced chest.


            "Then why's she being all passive-aggressive and snotty?" Usagi gave a sideways glance at the, physically, younger Setsuna.


            "You did just wake her up from her nap," Eve reminded.


            "Well, isn't she supposed to be guarding me?" Usagi inquired.


            "No, my daughter and myself have the shift now," Eve indicated Sophie who was sitting nearby with her 17mm Pug on the table next to the report she was skimming. Sophie found babysitting a pain, though it was a welcome relief from training.


            "Oh." Usagi tilted her head. "So you just came in to take a nap?"


            Ranma shrugged. "It's a private conference room, and I wanted to talk to my sister."


            "But you were too tired." Eve supplemented.


            "Tired?"


            "There's been a lot of cleanup." Ranma's eyes hardened. "How's your work been going?" The redhead gave a brief glance to Eve.


            Setsuna tapped a crystal on the table causing a translucent image of a silver-haired woman in a type of body-hugging metallic armor to appear. "I've been showing Usagi some images of the Queen's... campaigning clothes."


            "Not going with formal, impossible to walk in gowns?" Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Good."


            "She still needs a lot of work. Usagi still smells the same, her Pattern is still the same, and her body language is the same." Eve critically stated before turning to Usagi. "To pull off undercover work you can't pretend you're someone else, you have to be someone else."


            "I can't do that cooped up in here." Usagi moaned. "I can't even go elsewhere on base."


            Taking care not to show her teeth, Ranma gave a thin smile. "If you don't like our rules you can leave."


            "You know I need your protection."


            "At least you finally figured that out," Sophie noted.


             Ranma shrugged "You're here because no one else is going to protect you. You're here because you weren't smart enough; you weren't strong enough; you weren't skilled enough. You're here because you fucked up, and now someone else has to clean up your mess."


            "Do you have to be this harsh?" Setsuna asked.


            "Maybe, it seems like it's starting to sink through her skull."


            "I should at least be able to see my friends," Usagi pouted.


            "No." Setsuna's voice was firm. "If we can fool them then it should work, and we can't fool them if they see you dressing up."


            "Minako should be here then, she's playing me after all."


            Setsuna shook her head again. "No. We get your role established first. Then she learns how to be you."


            Usagi turned to Ranma and Eve.


            "It's an acceptable plan," the blonde demoness allowed.


            "Glad I meet your approval," Usagi sighed.


            "Still have to see the costume," Ranma stretched her arms.


            "We'll get it," Setsuna looked down, embarrassment crossing her young face..


            "Really?" The demon's eyes narrowed at Usagi. "This is it. You are not getting any more chances. Not from me. Not from the Company."


            Usagi stared, and one thought floated to the forefront of her mind. "You prepared this. You came ready with another speech. And then... you fell asleep."


            "I was thinking of telling you when it was my shift, but... I saw the chance and I took it." Ranma shrugged. "My ultimatum still holds. Shape up or get out."


            "So that's it? Blackmail? Assassination? You know the Russians will attack me." Usagi's gaze hardened.


            Idly adjusting her vest, Ranma chuckled. "No, blackmail would be if I threatened to call them right after kicking you out. Assassination would be if I had you killed myself. But don't worry." Amusement laced the demon's words.


            "It would be rather rude. You are using our equipment," Setsuna pointed to the jamming bows. "And that's not counting breach of contract."


            "There's escape clauses." Ranma shrugged.


            Usagi blinked. "Nice contract you got us, Puu."


            Setsuna smirked. "What do you expect? They're demonic mercenaries."


            Ranma raised her hand slightly. "Eve, a lesson?"


            Extending a single claw, Eve whipped her arm out and sliced through both of Usagi's odangos.


            Ranma nodded. "Not bad, a bit slow. "


            "What did you do that for?" Usagi shrieked as her eyes saw her blonde strands spilled over her shoulders and thighs. The buns damaged, her hair unraveled and fell around her ears and the demon's idle hand.


            "I'm surprised too." Ranma raised an eyebrow. Usagi's question was valid. "I expected Eve to at least draw blood."


            "A common World War Two practice had newly liberated citizens of a country shave the heads of women collaborators. It was an easy way to mark traitors, and less permanent than the methods used on the males," Eve explained.


            "What does that have to do with me?" Usagi demanded."


            "Just a bit of shame." Eve stated. "We could give you a more permanent reminder of your failure."


            "Scars are a bit cliché," Sophie cautioned.


            Usagi found herself unable to meet the blonde's cold blue gaze. Her attention drifted to Ranma and saw those deep, purple eyes study her. There was none of their normal warmth or playfulness, only a business-like distance.


            The redhead studied the princess for several seconds. "Do you want to be treated like an adult or a child?"


            "But... I'm your age."


            Ranma chuckled. "Adult: you're fucking up. Here's how to fix it. Now fix it. Child: you're trying really hard! Good job! It's not the result that matters, it's just that you try!"


            "But I did try!"


            The demon scoffed. "Shame Puu can't cram you into a little girl body."


            "Well, her transformation pen could give a reasonable facsimile," Setsuna admitted.


            Ranma's eyes flared slightly. "Choose: adult or child."


            "Queen or princess." Setsuna added.


            Usagi looked down. "It's not that..."


            "It sucks. You didn't get a choice. Some stupid cat comes in and ruins your life. In my case it was a guy in a rumpled suit and a tacky tie. Deal. With. It. Adapt and overcome, or die."


            "I've been adapting!" Usagi stood up, her palms slamming onto the table. More cut tresses slipped out as her hands opened. "You can't stand here and sneer at me. I've had my friends die! I've seen cities burn! What makes you think you can lecture me like this?"


            Out of Usagi's view. Ranma's tail straightened slightly and began to curve upward. "So is this a child's tantrum? Or the outburst of an adult that's had enough?"


            "Enough? The only reason Minako's alive is because Ami violated her! I'm sick of the weirdness. I'm sick of people trying to kill me and I don't even know why. I've had aliens, demons, cults, assassins, even a circus after me."

            "And?" Ranma's voice was low and almost curious.


            "And I'm getting to my limit. I'm sick of living in my mother's shadow. In the queen's shadow."


            "The queen is dead." Setsuna murmured.


            "She's been dead a long time," Ranma sighed.


            "Still been screwing up my life."


            "The queen is dead," Setsuna repeated. "Long live the queen."


            "Oh no...." Ranma rubbed her face.


            "What?" Usagi asked, before Setsuna's words sunk in. "You lied to me!"


            "Technically it was Luna," Setsuna said, mildly.


            "So, if I was the queen... wait... don't I need to be crowned?"


            "That's just a formality. The true succession happens the instant the reigning queen dies."


            "Okay, so I'm the Queen. I was gonna be one later, in Crystal Tokyo." Usagi paused. "So, is there a difference? Being a queen now?"


            "Princess is just that: a princess. A diplomatic token, a spare in case of regicide, but the queen... The Queen is in charge," Setsuna explained.


            "Not that you have a kingdom now," Ranma added.


            "There's a few scattered facilities and bunkers on some moons. Mostly junk," Setsuna corrected.


            Looking at her wristwatch, Ranma noted the use of the word "mostly".


            "I guess that fits. I was planning on pretending to be Queen Serenity." Usagi sat back down. "I might as well be her for real."


            "Oh? So you've made your decision?" Ranma asked.


            "You're just like Ami. You all want me 'better'. You don't think I can handle things on my own. You don't think I'm ready for this. You think I need to be pushed, molded, forced. You think your way is the best way."


            Ranma interlaced her fingers and let her hands rest on the table. "Your choices are very simple."


            "Grow up or get out?"


            "I'm sure Puu has a place where she can hide you for a few decades," Eve stated.


            Usagi turned and saw Setsuna contemplative. "We are paying them to kill the these assassins."


            "It would keep you out of the way, and is the safest option," Ranma stated.


            "So, I'd be kept hidden in some castle? A real fairytale princess," Usagi grumbled.


            Eve chuckled. "If you're going to act like one, you may as well... Just sit back and trust Setsuna."


            Usagi's eyes darted over and caught Setsuna still in a contemplative state, though with a hint of anxiety.


            "Yes Puu, prove Akumi right and take Usagi and bend her to your dark will." Ranma chuckled.


            "That would stop the whining," Eve added.


            "I have been trying to help you," Setsuna turned from Usagi to the demons. "What do you propose?"


            Ranma fixed her eyes onto Usagi.. "What I should do is put you into a smart dress, give you a list of names, and send you door to door to go explain to all those families why their husbands and fathers aren't coming home anymore."


            "And why aren't you doing that?" Setsuna asked. "That seems like a better lesson than humiliation."


            Ranma's eyes flared. "Can't tell anyone what happened. At least, the firemen's families can be told something close to the truth, but they can't be told the reason: that some spoiled little princess did not take a threat seriously."


            Ranma glared at the, blonde. "It sickens me. Our secrecy, our professionalism, protects the world from knowing the true levels of your incompetence. And here we are." The redhead's voice shifted and words began to merrily ooze out. "What do you want? Do you want my help? Do you want their deaths? To learn how to stand on your own? To become an adult? To be a real queen? Or do you simply want to get some control back in your life?"


            "You can give me all that?"


            Ranma chuckled. "Some things can't be given, but if you start acting like an adult... I can start teaching. It won't be fun, but you will learn."


            Usagi slowly nodded. "I understand."


            The demon's smile became almost sympathetic. "Not yet." Glancing at her watch, she stood up. "I must get going, but when I get back I expect you to be in your new... body."


            Eve smirked. "I'll make sure they get with the program."


            Usagi frowned at the demons' knowing expressions.


            Setsuna leaned in. "Good, even you can smell the setup," she whispered.


            Swallowing Usagi looked at the redhead. "What do you want with me?"


            Ranma stopped at the door. "To not be in the way. To keep things from getting worse."

 

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

 


            Smelling the brisk nearly-winter air Ranma held her disappointment. "I guess you're better than no one," she said walking up to the concrete wall.


            Turning slow enough that her short black bangs did not even move, Arisha gave a cold glance at the demoness. "Do you want me to summon Galina?"


            "Well upside, you'd be easier to kill than her." Ranma shrugged. "But, downside, you'd be easier to kill than her."


            Arisha's eyes narrowed.


            "Maybe I should have sent Nariko in my place," Ranma's lips pulled back in a simulacrum of a grin.


            "We got your broadcast, we got the message the broadcast directed us to. We listened to what you told us." Arisha felt her body's tension rise.


            "And Galina agreed to this meeting."


            "What do you want to say?" At that moment, Arisha loathed the gratification her self control was denying her.


            "The Princess is not our primary priority. I understand your desire to eliminate her, but your operations have the potential to cause great damage."


            "More than killing one of your precious Pattern Silvers? More than killing the most powerful of the Pattern Silvers?"


            Ranma blinked. "Don't insult me by feigning ignorance. You have the intelligence abilities to start digging around. Even the Princess was able to figure out what's really going on here."


            Arisha held the immediate response. She would not rise to the demon's bait. "And that's your warning?"


            "I doubt I can convince you to stop trying to kill her, but I can try to convince you to not cause an interdimensional collapse in the process. After all, it'd be hard to spend that money with the cities burned to slag and the countryside covered with giant brain-suckers from beyond space and time." Ranma leaned forward. "Maybe you can sell your services to them. Work out a deal, they can eat you last."


            The cyborg's cheek gave a slight twitch, and she wondered if this was what Desyat felt like during her "meeting".


            "Come on, you can have an emotional outburst, I don't care." Ranma's face turned serious. "I'm sure Shest has gone over the data, compared it to her own readings. So she knows we're serious. She knows what her little device can do."


            "She has studied the data." Arisha expected the demon to give a condescending smile of approval. Instead, the redhead gave an absent nod.


            "Though just the term inter-dim collapse doesn't really explain what'll happen." Ranma tapped her lips. "I can recommend a few books."


            "We've already done a literature survey." Arisha kept her voice level as she recalled the reports Dve'nadtsat wrote.  The injured girl attacked the job with a grim gusto,  despite certain... setbacks. 


            And the information was... useful after a fashion.  They had been able to determine which of their components were... bugged,  if such a descriptor applied to "magic".  The rest was useful, if only to give vague boundaries to the yawning abyss before them.


            "Good!" Ranma's face brightened. "Now you should be careful, a lot of what's in those old books is crap."


            "I think we're bright enough to not try to summon things from eldritch tomes," Arisha eyed the demon.


            Ranma gave the cyborg a measured look. "Right. I expected you to be more sensible than the Pattern Silvers," she gave a curt nod. "Good."


            "Is that all? Establish some face time to assure some limits? What assurances do we have about your end of the bargain?"


            Ranma raised an eyebrow.


            "Don't be coy. We're not the only ones playing with reality. The Senshi did something, something that caused Shest to set off her pulse. You know that." Arisha sighed. "So we're supposed to stop weakening reality barriers with our pulses and you're supposed to keep the Senshi from doing something stupid with whatever the hell they've been summoning.


            Ranma sighed. "They should know better, and what do you want from the Company?"


            "Nothing that we could reasonably ask for. Well, other than you keeping those teenagers in line."


            The redhead raised an eyebrow. "Personally, I wouldn't trust the Senshi's word. They haven't exactly shown themselves receptive to Company policy."


            "Maybe you need a tighter leash." Arisha smirked.


            "Maybe I should just kick them out on the street and let you take care of them." Ranma's voice was curt.


            Arisha chuckled.


            "I'd recommend adapting the methods to block their powers, of course that could be a trap," Ranma shrugged.


            "Yes and instead of blocking us from paranormal resistance the whole process tags us." Arisha shook her head. "Infuriating."


            Ranma grinned showing some of her teeth. "If they're annoying you that much, just keep killin' 'em."


            "We're almost halfway there, of course then she'll be even more dependent on you."


            The demon broadened her toothy grin.


            "Not that that's a downside, I suppose."


            "So, what do you want?" Ranma asked, keeping her grin.


            "To complete the mission." Arisha glared.


            "Not what the team wants, not what Galina wants. What do you want?"


            Arisha raised an eyebrow, the demon's smile was believably warm, she managed to get her eyes to look friendly. "The mission."


            The demon chuckled. "Is that it? Is that really all that you want?" She leaned forward and sniffed the air. The cyborg's scent was a delicate mix of light oils and sweat. "Tell me, there has to be more than that."


            "This is silly," the cyborg stated. Looking past the surface amusement on the eyes she saw a familiar... depth. The creature was measuring her, evaluating her, sizing her up, like a weapon, a tool, a piece of meat.


            Deliberately looking away, Ranma calmly repeated herself. "Yes, but still.. what do you want?"


            Sensing the pointed undercurrent to the question, Arisha clenched her fist. "Alright. Fine. You really want to know what I want? You really want to know the truth?" Her voice rose. "I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the world. I want to see the Russians stretch forth their hand again and command the stars!"


            Arisha almost growled. "I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power! I want to stop running through my life like a woman late for an appointment, afraid to look back or to look forward. I want us to be what we used to be! I want..." she paused and smirked. "I want it all back the way that it was!”


            Still looking at the water, the demoness pursed her lips slightly.


            "There." Arisha sighed. "Does that answer your question?"


            The demon returned and once again Arisha felt that heavy gaze fall on her again. Ranma smirked. "Yes... yes it does."


            "Is this where you make your counter offer?" Arisha asked, her tone once again controlled.


            "Do you think my associates can give you what you want?" the demon asked, her smirk in full bloom.


            "I should have known you'd try to tempt me, but I didn't expect it to be so crude. I won't betray them. We were betrayed."


            "What if you wouldn't be a traitor?" Ranma warmly asked as she looked out over the water.


            "Galina would not accept that logic. She'd see me usurping her authority, rightfully so."


            "Don't put her into the position then. Just tell her my offer."


            "What is your offer?"


            "You didn't know what you were getting into, did you? Despite your powers, the NH world is as alien to you as it is to a normal." Still grinning Ranma turned back to the cyborg. "But now you've done the research, you know WIC's history, our history. Our organization was old when your dreams of technocratic utopia were young.


            "We're more than a mercenary force. In the NH combat field, we're the premier R&D think tank, weapons supplier, and training organization. Government policy bends to our will. You've seen what we've done here, but do you know our history? What we did during the Great Patriotic War?"


            "You asked me if I thought your associates could give you what I, what we, want," Arisha stated.


            "Yes." Ranma's eyes shined slightly. "We even have the ear of the Seventh Directorate. Would you like to know what information the FSB has on you?"


            Arisha set her jaw.


            "It's fascinating seeing how their reports match up with the Vatican's, of course the Checkists always had an axe to grind against you girls, they always were jealous of the Red Army." Noticing the other woman's body language, Ranma's expression became more contemplative. "How about revenge? Would you like to get back at the traitors that killed your creator? Would you like to bring down their whole corrupt system?"


            "Your offers are extravagantly outlandish."


            "Really? You don't think your sisters could change things? Moscow would be your playground. We would merely offer intelligence and logistics support."


            Outwardly, Arisha scoffed; inwardly she considered. Many times she had brought this very issue up with Galina.


            "You've got a lot of special parts. How's your supply of eyes holding out? What about your power systems? Do you have enough lubricants and field repair kits? How about your own dedicated machine shop?"


            "And for all this we simply have to give up our current mission?"


            "Nah." Ranma chuckled. "Talk with Galina, see what your terms are. If they're good, we'll give you Usagi alive, dead, free, bound, or any other way you prefer."


            "You'd abandon a contract so flippantly? Won't that hurt future business?"


            The demon's smile died. "Strange words from a communist. Have the years surviving on your own taken that much of a toll? Have you forgotten what it means to fight for something? For something greater than monetary gain?"


            Arisha's arms crackled with energy as she moved her hands towards her belt, and her sword hilts.


            "Ah, so there's more to your group than exchanging violence for money?"


            "Yes," Arisha hissed.


            "So it goes with us. We'll take a job, but not when it threatens our existence, our further goals. The princess' stupid, arrogant delusions have cost us a lot of good men."


            "They lost people too," Arisha relaxed slightly, fractionally.


            Ranma's smile returned. "Shame you didn't kill more of them. Then we'd have less complaining children to deal with."


            "We would have killed more, but then you came. You and that insane daughter of yours."


            "Heh, well we all make mistakes," Ranma laughed.


            "Cutting through a nuclear power cell is not a light matter."


            Ranma took a step to the side. "Your fault for carrying something like that."


            Arisha frowned. "Is that all?"


            "We're done," Ranma turned back to the water. "Just pass along the warning and the offer."


            "Would you really give her up? Betray her like that?" Arisha distantly asked, glaring at the demon's back.


            "It's a part of doing business, you have to ask yourself if the job is worth it."


            Arisha frowned. "I'll convey your message and offer." She waited for the demoness to acknowledge her with a slight nod. The cyborg then stepped back and briskly walked away from the water front. The demon alone with her thoughts began to happily hum.


           

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

 


            "This sucks," Makoto tossed a paper airplane against a drab wall.


            "Usagi and Setsuna insisted," Rei flatly stated without lifting her head off the pillow.


            "And you're okay with that? Them cooping us up in here? We can't hide forever."


            "Sure we can." Rei kept her gaze at the ceiling . The steady humming from the vents drew her attention and she wondered how WIC secured them. She was certain that they had some scheme in place.


            "If you're bored there's a TV. Or you can order some more clothes that we'll then buy for you." The diminutive redheaded demon narrowed her blue eyes slightly.


            "There's nothing on." Makoto had her fill of the local media's "disaster coverage" and none of the cooking shows could keep her attention.


            The demoness went back to her gun. "Dinner will be in an hour. Then you'll have something to do," she said without looking up.


            "Oh, we're inconveniencing you?"


            "Sure," Morgan shrugged. "But you get used to obnoxious duties."


            Makoto snickered.


            Rei rolled over to face Makoto's bunk. "I don't like it. Setsuna giving Usagi all this special attention. She's different."


            "Yes, Setsuna is," Makoto dryly stated.


            "No, I mean after the Russians killed her. This pint-sized-Puu...." Rei trailed off.


            "Maybe it's just shock. Mina's not the same either."


            Rei shook her head. "Yeah, Mina's not."


            Makoto looked at Rei for a few seconds. "What Ami did to her-"


            "Changed her. That's why I'm worried about Setsuna. It's like she's gone around to Ranma's way of thinking; Ami's way of thinking."


            The brunette frowned.


            "You know I'm right." Rei stated.


            The phone by the door rang a couple times before Morgan reached over and picked it up. "Graham here. Yes? Alright then." Hanging up, she turned to the two teens. "Get up, we're going to the commissary."


            "Our dinner got moved up?" Rei asked.


            Morgan shouldered her 25mm rifle, and opened the door. "Sure," she said before motioning to the two agents guarding outside the door.


            "What do you think this is about?" Rei quietly asked.


            "DarkStar finally snapped and took out Usagi?" Makoto laughed as they walked down the corridor.


            "There'd be more noise..."


            Morgan suppressed a smirk and opened the door to a conference room.


            Inside, was DarkStar, her sister, the young Setsuna, and a stiff-looking Usagi, and one other woman. She held the entirety of Rei and Makoto's attention.


            Holding a cup of coffee she stood next to Eve and was only a few centimeters shorter. Glossy grey, almost silver, hair framed her face in short bangs while most of her hair was pulled back in a tight French braid that was folded back up forming a short, tight bun.


            Hanging on her shoulder by a leather strap was a long length of wood. At first, Rei mistook it for an old bolt-action rifle, but then she noticed that instead of a metal barrel, a long shaft of blackened crystal was set in the wooden stock. It also lacked a trigger-guard, discernable action, or magazine. The whole device was shaped more like a staff that had one end modified for shouldering and had a pair of forward grips. A golden crescent moon was inset on one side of the staff.


            Thin metal gauntlets covered the backs of the woman's hands and disappeared up her sleeves. The woman was dressed in a beige blouse with a high, thin collar. A restrained dark blue silk bow adorned her chest, bearing a closer resemblance to the brood's jamming antennae than the Senshi ribbon and bow.


            A dark-navy-blue jacket with gold piping went over the blouse and nearly covered the matching back bow that tied down the woman's skirting. The inner layer was a simple cream, gold trimmed, ankle-length skirt which was mostly covered by overlapping pleats of heavy dark blue material.


            Above that was a final layer of consisting of silver-grey armor. It was arranged in thick sections that resembled Venus' metallic armor, save longer, reaching past her knees, and thus more articulated. Heavy leather boots adorned her feet. Each had armored sections on the toes, heels, and tied over the shins.


            The only jewelry she wore was above her pale-blue eyes. Unlike Rei's tiara, this one was silver and made thicker, heavier, and instead of a jewel simply had a golden crescent moon at its center.


            A broad smiled crossed the woman's face, highlighting the tendons in her long, slender neck, and the slight lines on her... weary face. "Mars, Jupiter. It's good to see you," she stated in a resonant, even voice.


            Rei blinked. "What the...."


            "Okay, what's going on? Where's Mina?" Makoto looked over and saw Usagi lift herself out of her slouch..


            The older woman's smile died. "You don't recognize me? Kiri did; DarkStar did; my daughter, of course, did."


            Rei furrowed her brows. "No... you can't be Serenity."


            The woman gave a wan smile. "Right, because no one's ever come back from the dead."


            "Wait, who's Kiri?"


            "Kiri, the new Guardian, the late Guardian's sister," the apparent Serenity patiently stated
           


            Makoto went to the teenage blonde. "Usagi what's going on here?"


            The princess sighed. "DarkStar came back, should Mother's return really be that surprising?"


            Ranma's violet eyes tracked the conversation for a moment and then went back to the slim folder in front of her. On the balance, there was more tangible progress on this front, not to dismiss the potential her earlier meeting could bring, especially if things fell through.


            "Yes, there were certain... contingencies in place," Serenity allowed.


            "Okay, where's Mina? This is all a bit too cute," Rei stole another glance at the silver-haired woman.


            Serenity stepped forward. "Oh? Been a while since someone called me cute," her resonant voice held an amused edge.


            "I didn't."


            "Slip of the tongue," Standing before the miko, Serenity smirked and looked down at the shorter girl. "And you're still staring at me."


            Rei kept herself from swallowing. "Who are you?"


            A silver eyebrow raised slightly, and she spoke in that patient, amused voice. "Queen Serenity."


            "Right. Setsuna didn't really die and Minako's conveniently absent. So there's obviously some kind of dress-up going on here."


            "Really now?"


            "Well we know Setsuna didn't die," Makoto said.


            "There was a body, or most of one," the blonde princess reminded.


            "Yes, let's assume I'm a body double of some type." Kiri shrugged. "What about the Queen?"


            Rei turned to the silent women in the room. "I'm sure the demons know who's who."


            "It kept those two on their toes," Eve stated. "Do you think they know who's who?"


            "Process of elimination makes it pretty obvious," Ranma replied. "A real test is to see how Akumi reacts to Serenity."


            "Since Mina's not dead." Makoto looked between the queen and princess. "So... Serenity and Usagi are both-"


            "Don't stray from the official line," Serenity cautioned. "It's for the best."


            "Huh, and this getup?" Makoto stepped around the... queen. "It doesn't exactly look like the normal vacuum-tight gown."


            "That's after the empire was secured. This –" Queen Serenity fingered her jacket. "is pre-Unification. Imperial Lunar Navy specifically."


            "Okay... and the staff? Some sort of crystal... gun?"


            Serenity smiled and unslung the weapon. "Mark Four Focus Projector. Standard weapon of the Royal Reconnaissance Commandos."


            "Why not use your wand? Isn't that a good focus?"


            Serenity pulled out her wand and slid it into a slot on the end of her staff. Once in place she pulled the crescent moon on the end, locking the wand in place and causing a pointed crystal arc to extend out from the weapon's end. "Unlike the Mark Three, the Mark Four can be fitted with nearly any personal focus artifact."


            "I still think you should get a Wraith Raider cloak. That would really help things." Ranma leaned back and tapped on her folder.


            The blonde princess tilted her head.


            Serenity arched a silver eyebrow. "You just want one so your mother can reverse engineer the design."


            "We're already working on our own adaptive cammo," Ranma shrugged.


            "Really?" Kiri Meiou blinked. "Ah yes... you already can summon clothing of different materials and colors. So... it's just a matter of control?"


            "You're talking about those not-really-invisible cloaks?" Rei asked.


            "Don't underestimate the ability to have your cammo-pattern change to match local conditions." Ranma stated.


            "Indeed." Serenity turned back to Rei and gestured to a chair. "Please. Sit."


            Rei slowly sat down. "Right... this seems pretty weird." Watching Serenity nearly stumble as she tried to balance her armor and her staff, the miko gave a slight smile.


            "The plan makes sense." Serenity stated, after taking a moment to regain her composure. "We have an intelligence advantage over the Combat Cyborgs."


            Sitting next to Rei, Makoto looked around the table and was amazed to find not one smirk or snicker.


            "Yea, they don't know Minako and Setsuna aren't dead." Rei said.


            "Despite abilities, their experience has been limited to... mundane targets," Kiri explained. "This way they're in the dark about our true capabilities."


            "So you two had to get disguises, but why do the Princess swap?"


            "I can survive the most damage," the girl wearing Usagi's form stated. Posing as the queen's double was the best way she could think to protect her... for now.


            Ranma and Kiri both smiled thinly.


            "The misdirection does have its limits. They're more than willing to kill all of us," Serenity admitted.


            "And why were we kept in the dark?" Rei icily asked. "Didn't trust us? Were you worried about another Ami incident?"


            "It was a test," Makoto looked into Serenity's pale eyes. "You wanted to see if you could fool us."


            Serenity nodded. "I'm sorry but we had only one chance."


            "You two can test your little dress-up against Ami."


            Rei kept her face neutral. "Yeah, Ami'd love this. You're doing what she wants. Just look at yourself."


            "I'm doing what needs to be done." For the first time, Serenity's reverberating voice gained a harsh edge.


            "Dress-up?" Rei asked.


            "We couldn't win against the Russians. I need the Company." Serenity tapped her armored hand on the table.


            "You should have told us!"


            The silver-haired woman narrowed her eyes. "This isn't a democracy. I am your Queen. That is not pretend."


            Reluctantly Rei broke eye contact and looked down.


            "We might be able to win," Makoto allowed. "We do have some heavy attacks. Stuff that even they can't brush off."


            "Hitting them would be a problem. They're rather agile and we haven't had a good track record at getting our attacks to connect," Kiri reminded.


            Serenity raised her arm. "Enough, we've got work to do. DarkStar if you'll start."


            A ghost of a smirk on her face Ranma opened her folder. "Okay, we've got a lot of work and not much time. Earlier today contact was made with a representative of the Combat Cyborgs."


            "You talked with them?" Rei asked.


            "Yes, Arisha Dva. I explained to her the devastating effects of their dimensional pulse device. She also stated the belief that they had killed several of you."


            "So, they think Minako and Setsuna are dead?" Makoto asked.


            "No, they said that they killed several of you," Ranma clarified. "She could have been lying to me. I know I was."


            "So you made that offer?" Serenity stopped as she worked through the best way to phrase her next statement. "You know I'm not comfortable with that... deal."


            "It's a legitimate Psychological Operation. We want them to be unsure of what they're facing. What the rules are. Who their opponents are. We can feed them misinformation and make them doubt information they already have." Eve was firm but reassuring.


            "It just seems so... wrong. Lying like that."


            "Lying to people that want to kill your daughter." Ranma tapped her fingers on the table. "Interesting sense of fair play you've gotten."


            "Really though, using me... her as bait?"


            Ranma looked over the silver-haired woman. "You should talk with your daughter about the dangers of making deals with demons, then."


            "But I-" Serenity winced and shut her mouth.


            The princess turned to Serenity. "It's okay, Mother. I screwed up." Her voice was stiff and slightly mechanical. She knew there was no limit to what she would do to protect the Queen; she had already died for her.


            Rei's tension abated somewhat. The disguise was far from perfect then.


            Ranma looked to Kiri. "Yes I definitely think the Queen needs another session."


            Serenity stiffened slightly.


            "The meeting was enough of a success. We conveyed the information and avoided casualties. However, afterwards we lost track of Arisha and have yet to hear their response to our offer."


            "Tell me when you hear what their response is." Serenity fingered her staff.


            "Of course," Ranma smoothly assured.


            "If they keep using that pulse we can have some real problems," Kiri added.


            "Yes." Ranma flipped to a different page. "Okay, basic training plans."


            "We've been trained." Rei stated.


            The redhead chuckled.

 

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

 


            Inside one of the reconditioned Quonset huts on the opaquely named Post-Incident Training Grounds a meeting began.
            Major Sifton looked at his assembled men. Many were looking at the WIC personnel at the front of the room with slight apprehension. Company officers wearing battle-dress usually meant combat drills and war games, while dress uniforms meant lectures. It looked like tonight was another training mission; looks were deceiving.


            Sifton's gaze checked out his platoon. At an initial glance they were all wearing their Canadian Disruptive Pattern (CADPAT) uniforms, and had their equipment and weapons at hand. He cleared his throat. "Tonight we will not be training. Lieutenant Hill."


            "Sir." At his side Lieutenant Hanna Hill activated the projector. "At sixteen hundred a 427 SOAS Heron UAV was on routine patrol. It was fitted with a Mark Seven Ostar Pattern Detector."


            The room quieted. "Sir, what did they find?" Sergeant MacDowell asked.


            "Peterborough. A cluster of Pattern D. Low emission. So they're either not very powerful, or they're good at masking their output." Hill gave a slight glance at the redhead that stood off to the side. "Local police have not recorded a spike in missing persons or murders," Hanna stated as the map of Peterborough, a town about a hundred kilometers Northeast of Toronto, was replaced by an aerial photo of a house.


            "Now that means a couple things. They could be hunting somewhere else, or they're not killing their meals. Command has seen fit to send us in to investigate." Major Sifton explained, watching his troops stiffen slightly.


            "Sir, this is not a Search and Destroy?" Master Corporal Pattison asked.


            "Correct. As far as we know these people have committed no crime. However, they are unregistered non-humans. WIC will be sending a small team of observers." Sifton gestured to the side. "Lieutenant Tendo and Special Contractor Saotome, Ranma will head the observers. Hill and Tendo will explain our continued intelligence."


            Lieutenant Tendo strode forward and began her presentation. "As you know, we do not know the intent of this NH group. Government policy is one of registration and monitoring. Any hostility on the part of the non-humans would warrant immediate action. Also note that the government does not have suitable long term detention facilities."


            Pausing, Kasumi gauged the soldier's reaction. They understood. "Keep in mind the abilities Pattern Ds have. If they are to turn hostile the situation can get very ugly very quickly. Keep your fields of fire clear and maintain trigger discipline. Be ready, especially in a close quarters situation. Inter-dim countermeasures will be operational, preventing enemy teleportation."


            "Also remember the close range limitations of your C1A1's under-slung 40mm. You may decide that getting torn apart by shrapnel is preferable to getting torn apart by a Pattern D. However at close ranges 7.62 NATO should suffice." Tendo smirked slightly.


            "Current over-flight has the Pattern-Ds being stationary. They may or may not be nocturnal," Hill explained. "The police have given us the information on who owns the house and the listed tenants. Reportedly, half a dozen young, attractive females. The location has fallen under some police attention for solicitation, but nothing stuck."


            A couple minutes into the presentation Sifton cleared his throat to cut down the gradually growing muttering. "Settle down. I don't like the ambiguity either, I know you'd rather you were going after those cyborgs that tore up Toronto, but this is the job. We don't know what we're getting into or if they're even hostile. We've faced situations like this before, we've prepared for this mission and we will prevail. After the Lieutenants finish, the operation will commence."


            Kasumi nodded and went back to her NH overview. JTF2 certainly had the skills and the spirit, but it remained to be seen how they would react to the unreality of NH combat.


           
           
           

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

 


            Galina winced at the garish assault. The broad-shouldered figure before her reinforced Arisha's constant complaints. The Capitalists were clueless and decadent eternally chasing material wealth. Shoes of shined ray-skin peeked out of flared plaid pants. Somehow the ironed creases and spotless condition underscored the... wrongness of the pattern. Regrettably, his suit-coat matched, continuing the same grey, green, and yellow pattern. Wide lapels and shoulder pads complimented, or at least were congruent with, the pinstripe cream-colored shirt and fat spotted and diagonally striped tie.


            Smoked aviator style glasses obscured his eyes, while the rest of his craggy face kept a neutral expression. Given the strength of his chin and nose, his middle parted, ear covering, oiled hair seemed too... soft and... wet.


            Galina sighed as the man sat down next to her. "Do you really have to do this? You look like a historical relic."


            The man put his briefcase and suit-bag down next to him. As he ordered a gin and tonic, Galina noted his pinky ring. The plain silver band contained a single spherical iridescent stone.


            The man took a sip and looked around the darkened bar. "Do you really want to get into an argument over who's equipment is more... dated?"


            "No. I want minimal fuss. If you insist on playing cute games you can go back to New Caledonia."


            After contemplating his drink, he drained his glass. "I came here didn't I?"


            Galina stood up. "As long as you understand your place, Mal."


            Placing a couple bills on the bar, Mal chuckled. "My place? Don't worry, I know my place."


            The two exited the bar and crossed an alleyway. "Fine. We can go over protocols later, but I want to know-" Still speaking she flicked a pair of blades. As Galina drove her knives forward she saw that he had stepped back.


            Instead of getting stabbed or clumsily attempting to block, he simply moved out of the way. She flipped the blade over and gave an upward thrust, and saw that he had already shifted his stance. Her other arm came in and in a feint stopped just in front of his neck. This time he held his ground. Her weapons still, she frowned slightly.


            Mal simply put his sunglasses away and straightened his coat. "That was slower than I expected."


            "You expected," Galina repeated, replaying the footage on her heads up display. His reaction... preceded her action. "Good. Nice to see you still have it de Veste." She slipped her knives out of sight.


            Mal de Veste gave a slight bow. "As advertised."


            "You understand why I had to be sure?" As they walked, Galina stressed the second word.


            "Why? I can guess why you did it," de Veste shifted his suit-bag. "We've never... met and only have each other's reputations to go on."


            "Kiev."


            Mal nodded.


             "Same time, but different... 'clients'." Galina looked up at the sky. She was reluctant to hire him, but they needed something... more. Something to compliment the areas they were weak in.


            de Veste nodded. "Lovely euphemism."


            "Impressions?"


            "I was surprised." Smirking at his apparent joke, de Veste turned to the cyborg. "This isn't your normal style. Your little ballet company should be in its next city."


            Galina cocked an eyebrow. "That we are even talking shows the strangeness of the situation we've come to."


            "It's bad," Mal stated as they waited for the crosswalk light to change.


            "Is that your... professional evaluation?"


            Mal tapped his foot. "You know the situation on the ground better than I do. You're the one that thought I'd be worth the expense. Rumor has it, I'm not the only one you're courting. Combine that with recent events, and what conclusion am I supposed to reach?"


            "Then I guess I don't need to brief you."


            "Compartmentalization level is your prerogative." The man shrugged. "However..."


            Galina slipped an arm into her coat. "Yes?"


            "Do you know why you were hired?"


            "That's not a question we ask," Galina automatically replied.


            "Bullshit. Everyone worth their salt digs around. Insurance is just good business sense. It's important. We're hired to perform a task, and sometimes we need more information on how to perform it."


            "And?"


            "Compare the situation you're in, with the profile of your... benefactor."


            The pair stopped in front of a hotel. "You don't need to worry about that," Galina crisply stated.


            "Naturally. In this example, my benefactor is... you and my client..." Mal chuckled again. "The question becomes, how much of this is a problem for you? What are your terms?"


            "Is this something you need to know?"


            "Given events there seems to be some play in permitted... exuberance. I need to know how far I'm allowed to go."


            Galina sighed and stepped into the building. "Fair point. A subcontractor's actions could reflect badly."


            They crossed the lobby. "Then the latitude I'll be allowed?


            "Do not concern yourself with... offending our benefactor." Galina cleared her throat as the two made it to the elevator bank. "That is not an issue. Completing your assigned tasks is far more important."


            "I see." Mal blinked. "Well, that certainly makes things simpler." He watched the Russian girl summon the lift.


            Stepping into the elevator, Galina gave a curt nod. "Just remember, while you don't have to answer to our benefactor, you do have to answer to me."


            Following her, Mal gave an oily smile. "Not a problem."

 

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

 


            "So... the big bow... it's really a jammer?" Sergeant Brummet asked.


            Across the cramped transport, Agent Sophie nodded.


            "You really think they'd wear something if it didn't have a purpose, Sarge?" Corporal Giddings asked.


            "I'm not too fond of the ribbon and skirt combination myself," Sophie noted.


            "Then you really wouldn't have liked our old uniforms," Misako noted, cradling the bulk of her grenade launcher.


            Sophie shook her head.


            "I think they were good looking," Misako haughtily sniffed.


            "Bare midriffs, miniskirts, and high heels do not mix with combat," Sophie replied.


            "And to think you were born female," Misako shook her head.


            "Really?" Corporal Lily Green turned to Sophie.


            Sophie nodded.


            "Figures."


            "How so?" Brummet asked.


            "Because there's two kinds of succubae. The normal ones and the 'I feel so pretty' ones."


            Sophie chuckled. "Yes, it's like whenever a soldier trades in his penis he gets a makeup kit instead."


            "It's not-" Brummet went between Misako's prim and Sophie's little smirk. "It is that bad?"


            "Having second thoughts about getting to use one of these?" Sophie hefted her Pug.


            Olsen stared at the thick bullpup rifle. "That does put a... damper on the appeal."


            "Ma'am, anything else? Anything we should watch for?" Bishop asked from the back of the troop compartment.


            Warrant Officer Jeff Pyke gave a silent nod. Curiosity was good, whatever could ease his squad's nerves. Every battle was different, but it had been a long time since his men had faced anything this different.


            "Tails are a major sign of mood." Sophie said.


            "Yes, watch to see when they go straight and start to rise up," Brummet nodded. "What else?"


            "Assume everyone is hostile. Just because they're human doesn't mean they can't attack you. Some demons have humans serving them enthralled , employed, or willingly." Sophie shifted her bow. "Light discipline. That's a major issue."


            "Oh?" Green raised her eyebrows.


            Sophie's eyes flared in a quick glow.


            "Ah, you always do that?"


            "It's when we get emotional. Training can control it, like the glow on our claws, but a lot of Pattern D's don't bother with it," Sophie said, rubbing her eyes. "The real advantage is eventually, you can use the eyeglow as a weapon."


            "Don't forget the flaming auras we can generate."


            "Right, those shields." Brummet frowned. "So you get small arms protection, at the cost of being lit up like a Christmas tree."


            "That's why we wear these bulky things." Sophie lifted up one of her skirt's armored pleats.


            "And a burst of 7.62 will go through those flames, correct?" Green knew what they had been told in the lectures but she wanted to hear it again.


            "Until you get up to Class 10. Otherwise concentrated fire will pierce it, and remember to keep an eye on those you shoot."


            "Regeneration, right," Brummet noted.


            "What about the cyborgs? What if this is one of their ploys?"


            "That idiot blonde isn't here," Misako spat.


            "She may not be, but four members of the Fifth NH are," Corporal Green explained.


            "Lil, wouldn't they use the split forces to attack where WIC's holding the target?" Brummet asked.


            "They could; they could also try to thin out the enemy a bit," Lilly Green stated.


            "That's why you were briefed," Sophie reminded. "Extremely armored. Small arms can be used to keep them from getting too close, but that's about it. Rockets, heavy machine guns, grenades. It takes a few bursts from this – " Sophie hefted her 17mm Pug. "- to crack their armor."


            "Well, shit." Brummet sighed.


            "Fight them like an armored vehicle, not a soldier. Go for the eyes and the joints or at least go at the same spot. Standard NH rules apply. If they close-in, that's it," Sophie shrugged.


            "Speaking of armored vehicles-" Bishop looked around the compartment. "They blew up some of yours." His question about vehicle survivability hung unasked.


            "We had more armor than this Rheinmetal YAK." Sophie gave a resigned shrug. "Still, if the brass thought the cyborgs were a risk we'd be going in by helicopter too or at least using LAV 3's."


            "Unless they thought that would be too provocative," Bishop sighed.


            "They're real fast little buggers. Area weapons may be your best bet," Misako added.


            "We were briefed on this." Giddings opened an eye. "Do we have to spend the trip worrying about all the ways we can get killed?"


            "There could be some Assembly remnants. They take a dim view on those that collaborate with demons," Misako smirked.


            "And a smattering of Pattern V. Plus whatever cultist groups managed to smuggle themselves into the area."


            "You've got a real mess here don'cha?" Giddings sighed.


            "Now, now trooper, it's your mess now," Sophie dryly said.


            "Think the Pattern Ds have moved?" Bishop asked.


            "Nope, they'd have radioed us if the situation had changed. After all, officers do not make mistakes." Warrant Officer Pyke sagely assured.


            Brummet laughed. "Of course Warrant."


            "The thing that worries me is that you demons can smell each other, at a pretty good range," Pyke drawled. "You can smell them, they can smell you? What's to keep them from getting tipped off early?"


            Sophie looked towards the senior non-com. "Like our light discipline there's emission training and some scent suppressants."


            "Ah, deodorant. Jolly good then." Pyke leaned back.


            "They'll hear the helicopter and these giant trucks first." Misako rolled her eyes; she had tried to explain to mother the redundancy of scent reduction, but she would not be swayed.


            Sophie sighed. It was not an antiperspirant; it was not an odor blocker; it simply helped dampen the pattern emissions. However, she knew it would be pointless to argue the point.


            "And I'm sure the timing is going to work out just fine," Brummet dryly noted.


            "I think the helicopter will wait for us," Pyke noted.


            "Unless things really go to hell. Then Red-"


            "Red?  That's –uh- Ranma right? The redheaded demon?" Green asked.


            Sophie nodded. "Yes. Red, Morrison, and Lieutenant Tendo will go in themselves." Sophie said with a careful lack of guile. "I'm sure First Squad will deploy right with them."


            "It will save us some trouble then," Brummet noted.


            "You could have had the sense to not volunteer," Giddings sardonically noted.


            "Sense? To not volunteer? What unit do you think this is?"


            "Clam up," Pyke stated after checking with the driver and his radio. "We're four minutes out."


            Sophie gave an appreciable nod as the troopers shifted to a more attentive position. With the fluid yet thorough motions of a familiar routine, they rechecked their equipment. One of the corporals stood up and manned the machine-gun in the custom-installed roof turret.


            The YAK stopped on a quiet forest road. With the roof turret tracking the woods to the side, the doors opened and a trio of soldiers rushed out. They immediately went prone and trained their weapons. The next group to egress went past the first, and established themselves at the tree-line.


            Controlling his breathing, Brummet ran through the evergreen grove. Taking cover by a lone tree he looked forward. The greenish light of his goggles revealed a mundane-looking house just ahead. Looking through the windows he could make out several people.


            He briefly switched to the Pattern scanner and his grip tightened. Freeing his left hand he held it back, palm forward, then extended all his fingers, save his middle, and finally pulled in his ring and pinky finger.


            Green put up her left hand, made a circle with her thumb and pointer, and extended her other fingers. After signaling that she understood, she repeated Olsen's hand signals. "Stop. Eight, D."


            Hearing only the soft steps of his comrades, Olsen waited. They were prone and camouflaged, but that did not help much, not if one of the Pattern D's bothered to look outside. The helicopters should be here. The other squads should be in place. Keeping his weapon ready, he studied the house. There was a back porch that had several steps leading up to it. From there the kitchen could be reached.


            "Third Squad is in position." Master Corporal Pattison's voice hissed over the radio.


            "First Squad is on final approach," Lieutenant Hill stated.


            "Pattern D recognized. Alexia's brood!" Misako's low volume belied the urgency in her tone.


            Listening to the weighted silence. Brummet set his teeth. He knew the officers were deliberating; he had read the reports. Having turned at least a hundred people, Alexia felt that quantity had a quality all its own


            "Second Squad. Plan H." Shifton's voice cut in.


            Olsen turned just enough to see Lily and Cordell give affirmative responses to his latest hand signal. Looking further to the side he could tell the rest of the squad was ready. Heart steadily pounding, he burst from the tree-line. Pounding footsteps followed him.


            He ran to the deck and vaulted over the low guardrail and fired a burst into the kitchen window. Catching a glimpse of a shocked woman with long, curly hair, Olsen rushed to the side, and out of a line of sight. He closed his eyes as Green threw a flash grenade. After the rumbling pop, he opened his eyes and went back to the window.


            A split second judgment call was made. The woman was pale, but had no weapons drawn. "Down on the ground!" he shouted; gun sighted at her head.


             Cord had breached the door and was followed into the room by Lilly. Their guns went up and the demon acquiesced, nearly tumbling to the floor. Shouts came from further in the house and the rest of Second Squad pushed though the kitchen. Olsen watched them assemble, then rush round a corner vanishing out of sight. There was more shouting followed by some bawling.


            Making sure that Cord and Lilly had the first demon covered, Olsen entered the house. His weapon immediately trained on the weeping woman. Lifting up his goggles, he took quick stock of the room.


            The kitchen was dominated by a worn, deeply scratched, but polished oak table. Several mismatched chairs encircled it. Broken glass from the blown window had covered the stovetop and collected on the stewpot's lid. The fridge displayed a vast spectrum of artistic quality. From fairly realistic landscape sketches to crude colorings.


            "Kitchen secure. One Pattern D," Olsen radioed. "Cord, check the fridge and the stove." Somewhat distantly, Olsen heard the thumping of troopers upstairs, more glass breaking, and helicopters. The absence of gunfire loomed in his mind.


            "Living room secure. Four Pattern D," Pyke radioed.


            "Bedroom secure. Two Pattern D," Hill stated. "Count match?"


            "Confirmed, all patterns accounted for," Pyke replied. "Commencing building search."


            "Fridge looks clean," Giddings reported. "Looks like normal stuff from the supermarket." He then went over to the stove and shut off the burner. Using a gloved hand he swept the glass off the lid and carefully eased it up. "Not seeing anything here, but it's stew - could be anything."


            "I think we got it," Olsen sighed in a measure of relief. "Cord get back here." Giddings resumed covering the demon and Olsen then made sure his attention was on the room's egress points and on their... prisoner.


            The demon had long lavender hair with a slight curl. A plain white dress was rumpled by her prone position. Still crying, her body shivered slightly and her hands flexed occasionally.


            "Don't." Lily coldly stated making sure that she was out of tail range.. "Extend your claws and we'll end you."


            Keeping his C1A1 at the ready, Olsen sidestepped into the living room, and blinked. The room was crowded with a long sectional sofa, two loveseats, some beanbag chairs and a few thick blankets. Like in the kitchen, the furniture here was worn, especially the blocky pine coffee table, but well-cared for.


            Olsen scanned the various end tables and nooks, looking for anything suspicious. Instead he found a rather normal smattering of movies and games. Though they were more of the "little-princess" variety. Spilled on the table was a couple fashion magazines, some pornography and an open coloring book, with adjacent crayons.


            Part of the room featured a sleek modernity that jarred with the rest. This wall was dominated by an immense flat screen TV which was hooked to a movie player and a couple videogame systems.


            However usurping all this was a curious tableau. The 'intimate' room was made even more cramped by the presence of over half a dozen armed, armored troopers, all of them cautiously covering four stunned girls, demons. Olsen noted that some of Third Squad had joined in the effort. Which fit the plan, their role was to support the assault by covering the front of the house and deploy inside, when needed.


             The harsh scent of urine hung in the air and Olsen noted the telltale stain running from a loveseat to the floor where one of the demons, a petite delicate-looking thing with white hair curled into tight ringlets, lay. The shocked crying was much more intense than in the kitchen


            "Any problems?" Olsen asked, feeling his blood pulsing through his face.


            "So far so good," Pyke stated, a calculating expression forming. "Keep it up, men. The major's about here, then we'll get this all sorted out. Bonhomme, Tahnee, and Jones are checking out the basement."


            One of the demons, a lanky girl with a pair of short black ponytails tried to slide to the little white-haired demon.


            "Put your arm back. No touching." Pyke ordered as he shifted his gun to the offending target.


            The tall demoness froze and then reluctantly withdrew her hand. Sensing the abandonment, the petite succubus renewed her sobbing.


            "Yeah, the Major's gonna sort this all out," Pyke groused.


            The demons' crying suddenly increased in volume and intensity. "He better get in here quick, or they'll make the decision for us." Olsen swore and returned to the kitchen.


            "Please! Kill them now!" the demoness from the kitchen loudly begged. "Don't let Her get them."


            "What the hell's going on? She's freaking out." Lilly kept aim on the despondent demon.


            "I don't know. LT, Major. The prisoners are getting mighty antsy," Olsen radioed.


            "Yes, we have an idea why," Major Sifton replied as he stepped through the ajar front door. The demons immediately settled down, mute horror blanketing their emotions.


            Feeling almost a cold... tightness, Olsen looked over and saw the redhead follow the officer. Olsen did not need to look at his scanner. He could tell visually that the redhead was something else; she was far beyond the weeping examples they had captured. The room seemed to re-center, and focus on Her.


            "Misako was right." She stepped into the living room, and gave a brisk nod to the JTF2 troopers. "Now, what are Alexia's spawn doing here?" She crouched down and studied the demons, who tried to slide away from the redhead.


            "I was under the impression that they were all dead," Sifton noted.


            "Blame your men's skill for the survival of this batch." Ranma returned to her full height. "Would have taken just one batch of nerves, one heavy trigger finger."


            "So we pass?"


            Ranma chuckled. "On no, you still have the most difficult part. Figuring out what to do with them."


            "Ah, interviews." Sifton turned to Pyke. "Jeff, Any... contraband found?"


            Warrant Officer Jeff Pyke shook his head. "I've had the men search the rooms, the basement, even poke through the attic. So far it's clean. Sure, they could be hiding something but we'll need dogs and start taking apart the walls to really be sure."


            "Any idea who's the leader? Broods have matriarchs, or at least elder members."


            "I think we've got her, Sir" Olsen interjected.


            Major Sifton turned to the kitchen. "Oh?"


            Olsen looked down at the woman, despite being tightly closed, her eyes still leaked tears "She was begging us to kill them. Before Ranma came in," he added.


            "Misako, get in here," Ranma radioed as she stepped towards the kitchen. "Hmm... good guess. She's the oldest."


            "This about the runts?" Using the abused back door, Misako stepped into the kitchen. She looked down and saw the prone demoness shiver.


            "You know 'em?"


            "They're Mother-Alexia's for sure." Misako frowned. "Huh guess she didn't get us all killed."


            "Mistress Aurora.... please... convince your... Mother to make it quick." the prone demoness begged.


            Careful to give the Canadians a clear line of fire, Ranma knelt down by the demoness. "I only killed your sisters because they attacked me and mine. If you're not a threat, I won't hurt you."


            The crying demoness twisted her head up, a sliver of hope entered her terror-filled eyes.


            "But if you are a threat, I'll eat your heart."


            "And my dau- my sisters?" She lowered her head. "They don't deserve this. They pleased Mother. They behave. They're good girls."


            "Green, Giddings, let her take a seat," Sifton turned to Ranma. "If you think that's prudent."


            "We don't need the thumbscrews." Ranma reached out and took the demoness' arm. She squirmed at the redhead's grip but then calmed under the more powerful being's influence. Ranma then guided her towards the kitchen table and into a seat that Olsen had pulled out.


            The older of Alexia's remnants, sat at the head of the long table, while Major Sifton and Ranma sat at the other. Flanking them was Corporal Lily Green and Corporal Cordell Giddings, both of whom had their guns leveled at the demoness.


            "What's your name?" Sifton gently asked, discreetly activating his recorder.


            The demoness bit her lip. " Cecilia, now. I... I was... Casey Kirchhoff ."


            "Why didn't Alexia use you in battle?"


            Cecilia leaned so she could look into the living room. "We weren't fighters. Mother had us for her pleasure. We helped with... recruiting."


            Sympathy colored Major Sifton's face, but he still made sure his troops had their weapons on target.


            "No.. I'm pretty sure you guys died in that office battle," Misako noted.


            "Many of us did. After that..." Cecilia shrugged. "Mother kept us away. Kept us safe. That's when she started splitting up her brood. So you..." She glanced at Ranma, and lowered her head. "So you wouldn't get us."


            "We know Alexia split up her brood, but we thought she threw all her cells at us. We certainly didn't detect any of them," Ranma stated.


            "Not until we started scanning further out," Major Sifton corrected. "Are there any groups left?"


            "I don't think so." Cecilia frowned. "Mother didn't tell us much, but at the end..." She sighed. "There just wasn't much left. She had heirs, she had some warriors, and she had... us."


            Sifton turned to Ranma.


            "She's telling the truth." The redhead sniffed. "But as she said, Alexia wouldn't tell these girls her plans."


            "Why not? Yuki was her brain-trust," Misako smirked.


            Wondering why DarkStar let Aurora have such a loose mouth, Cecilia held her tongue. The spark had caught and a tiny hope bloomed in her. Serving a new Mother would not be bad, especially compared to the alternative. Insubordinate as she was, Aurora had grown in strength and honed her edge, and had lost that garish false-tan she and Mother favored.


            "So, it's just you and your seven sisters?" Sifton asked.


            "Yes. Christine, Meredith, Priscilla, Isabel, Kirsten. Hazel, and Desiree."


            " And I thought I had to take care of a lot of broodlings. Your hands must be very full." Ranma said with a touch of admiration.


            Cecilia stared a shocked blush creeping up her cheeks. "Uh... thanks. I didn't... I'm sure my sisters will be good servants and mates."


            Ranma blinked.


            Wincing, Cecilia lowered her head. "Sorry, I didn't mean... I was just... hoping. If you're not going to kill my family, what are you going to do with them?" she asked, her eyes looking to the stew; it was sure to be cold by now. At least one of the soldiers had thought to turn off the stove.


            The redhead leveled her gaze; purple eyes staring at Cecilia. "Have you heard of the phrase 'No greater friend no worse enemy.' ?"


            "You got that from Morrison," Misako drawled.


            Ranma rubbed the bridge of her nose in frustration. "Still..." She turned back to Cecilia. "You have two options. You can be our enemy, and be destroyed. Or you can be our ally and be protected."


            "As cowboy as it sounds, it really is with us or against us," Sifton added. "If you've been killing people and treating them like cattle, we will learn of it."


            Cecilia shook her head. "No, I never!"


            "There are eight hungry mouths in this house. What do you do for food?" Sifton asked.


            "There's a reason we have dinner so late," Cecilia chewed her lip. "I work... evenings."


            "Ah." Ranma nodded.


            "Is that how you get money too?" Sifton asked.


            Cecilia nodded. "It's easy work. We don't need much money or energy, and it's low risk. Mother always created such a... mess. Without her, we couldn't risk the attention."


            "How many work?" Ranma asked.


            "Just me." Cecilia leaned back. "I thought it would be too much risk. The others are so... special. Meredith watches the house when I'm at work."


            "Supporting a family of eight on your own?" Misako did some quick math in her head. "Your clients must love you."


            "I am a succubus," Cecilia said, her pride hurt slightly.


            "We do have a distinct advantage over our human competition," Ranma nodded. "So, you're independent right?"


            Cecilia nodded.


            Sifton turned slightly to Ranma. "How'd you make that guess?"


            "WIC watches all the organized prostitutes and brothels. It's a natural place for energy draining NH's to work." Ranma omitted that the Drake's... experience had helped fill out the Company dossiers on said organizations.


            "I've got a few other girls I talk with, but my reputation..." Cecelia gave a little smirk. "I don't have a problem finding people willing to meet my rates. I suppose you'd want a client list."


            "Yes, we'll need all your information. Everything." Sifton stated.


            "Privacy is for humans," Ranma's sardonic tone had a sharp undercurrent.


            Cecelia nodded her head. "I'll do whatever you say. But please, could you let my sisters have a bit more comfortable seating? And it smells like some of them got a bit... scared, can fresh clothes be arranged?"


            "We can make those arrangements." Sifton noted Ranma's slight nod at his statement.


            'Thank you," Cecelia bowed her head.


            "Warrant Young. Have your two prisoners pick out four sets of clothing. Then escort them down. Take some men from Second Squad to help," Sifton radioed.


            "Change of clothes, Sir?" Warrant Officer Francis Young asked. He looked around the bedroom and made sure his men had kept trigger discipline and clear lines of fire.


            "That's correct. We've been having a nice chat with the elder Pattern D, been real civilized here," Sifton dryly remarked.


            "Yes, Sir." Young turned to his men. "Billy, you and Pete help these.... girls get some clothes."


            "What's going on?" One of the succubae asked. Her hair was a light green and was pulled in a short ponytail just above her left ear. She was laying on one of several large mattresses that took up two-thirds of the bedroom. The thick blankets that covered them had been tossed to one side when the troops cleared the room. The other third of the room had a few wardrobes and dressers. All were worn, but well-cared for, and were filled with clothing and other baubles and "toys".

 
            "Meredith, that was your big sister. She wants you and Desiree to get some clothes for the rest of your sisters," Young explained.


            The demon with the side-ponytail blinked. "Cecelia did that?"


            "We're gonna be okay?" the other succubus, Desiree asked.


            "Maybe," Sergeant Billy MacDowell allowed with a cough. He looked over to see Young ordering for some more troops to come upstairs. The sergeant then turned to the other squad members.


            "Thank goodness," Meredith sighed, leaning up a bit on the mattress. The longer they stayed alive the more... confident she felt. She knew some of Cecelia's worries and being taken by another powerful group seemed the best they could hope for.


            "Come on guys, let's get something organized." Still keeping an eye on the demons, Billy shifted over to the dressers and wardrobes.


            "From the Dress-up Trunk?" Desiree asked.


            "Nothing too flashy," Meredith cautioned.


            Young nodded his head and motioned for the smaller demoness to cross the room. Two soldiers stood to one side and tracked her movements. Momentarily distracted from the night's trials, she hummed the theme-song to a cheery children's show.


            "Open it slowly," MacDowell cautioned as he angled himself. They had checked out the trunk before, but there could be a hidden compartment.


            Desiree opened the trunk and slowly, carefully removed a top lid. On one side were colorful costumes, on the other side were plain clothes. She went for the latter and started slipping out blouses and undergarments.


            "Better get some washcloths too," Tahnee said after she and Bonhomme entered the room. "Make things a bit easier for the girls."


            "Keep your hands where I can see them," MacDowell warned Desiree.


            "We're ready?" Young asked.


            Desiree and Meredith nodded.


            "Second Squad, we're going downstairs with two Pattern D's," Young radioed.


            "Understood." Pyke replied. "Bishop, Jones, mind the stairs."


            Nostrils flaring, Misako shook her head. It was strange.... seeing them alive.


            Ranma leaned over and watched the procession. The troops peeled back and let Desiree and Meredith join their sisters. She smirked a bit at how crowded the living room had become.


            Watching the succubae reunite and help clean themselves, a relieved smile formed on Cecelia's face. "Thank you."


            Ranma gave a curt nod. She then turned to her apprehensive daughter. "Go get Kasumi."


            "Right." Misako stepped out of the kitchen and into the night air. Tracking the tree-line, she inhaled the night air. While she could still sense her... relatives, at least the scent was no longer as... pungent. Giving a slight apathetic shrug, she reshouldered Sasha and went around the building.


            Creeping in an oblique route she made it to Third squadron and the Company troops. A small smirk formed when one of the Canadians challenged her as she approached. "Hey, LT" the demon said, after getting to the loose position. Overlooking a cul-de-sac, it covered the house's forward approach.


            "Yes?" Kasumi asked.


            "Mother wants you in the house; I think she wants help on processing the... demons."


            Kasumi noted Misako's tone. "She could have radioed."


            "I think she was being clever," Misako's eyes darted to the side.


            Looking up, Sophie kept her Pug at the ready. Despite her strength, and her training the weapon's weight pulled at her arms.


            "Sounds like we burst into a bunch of nice little girls," Warrant Officer John A. Macdonald noted, skepticism entering his voice.


            "Things can still go bad," Kasumi noted, having a fair idea why her former fiancee sent her daughter outside. "Good idea Misa, you stay here with Morrison and Third Squad. I'll take Sophie with me."


            Sophie got to her feet and followed her former commanding officer.


            "Bad blood between Misako and the old family?" Sophie whispered.


            "That and she is a blunt instrument. Not exactly what you want for a polite interview."


            "Better to send a newborn demon?" Sophie asked.


            "You do need the experience."


            Covering the lieutenant, Sophie crossed the threshold. Entering the brood's lair, their scents magnified and their presence grew much stronger. Reflexively her elbows tightened to her body, stabilizing her weapon further.


            "How old do you think they are?" Kasumi asked, glancing at her scanner display


            "They're too young. They had to have been made well after Alexia died." Sophie noted the JTF2 troopers part and reposition their weapons to let them pass. They gave her even more room than they gave Lieutenant Tendo. However, Sophie's wings, even folded up, did give her a bigger silhouette.


            "You're forgetting diet. Not everyone eats as well as your family," Kasumi noted as they stepped into the kitchen.


            "Yeah..." Sophie looked at the broodlings huddled around the kitchen table. They had more power than her. One with a ponytail on the side of her head and another with long curly lavender hair comforting the others, who were nervously, slowly eating.


            "That's not very diplomatic," Ranma noted from the far side of the kitchen.


            Cecelia looked up as Kasumi and Sophie entered. "You have a sister?" she asked Ranma after taking in the new demon's scent and categorizing it as a niece.


            Ranma nodded.


            Pulling her right leg back and bending her knees slightly, Sophie shifted into a more natural stance. She tightened her wings and her tail hung loose and low. Her gun was pointed down but held at the ready. The demon before her was not as powerful as any of Red's spawn, but she was definitely brood mother material.


            Cecelia looked up from the pot she was ladling out of. "Very confident for being so young. I can see why we lost."


            Looking past the windowpane not covered with a piece of cardboard, Sophie noted more JTF2 soldiers. "It's a dangerous world," she reflexively said.


            "You do this for all your brood?" Cecelia looked to Ranma.


            "Yeah, only Submaternissima have minions instead of daughters."


            If possible, Ceclia's face would have paled. "Mother called you that," she said handing the last bowl to a set of eager hands.


            "Funny, she's the one that made her spawn into cannon fodder." Ranma felt the wary apprehension form the quietly eating demons, they were looking to their.... big sister for assurances. "Ironic, the ones Alexia left out to die from exposure were the ones to live."


            "Correct use of irony." Kasumi noted.


            "Submaternissima?" Major Sifton asked.


            "Demonic swear word. Refers to a horrible succubus who would turn her spawn into toys, monsters, and tools, betraying the maternal nature of the entire species," Sophie explained.


            "Isn't it enough that you killed her?" Cecelia asked.


            Despite her pleasant little smile, Ranma's tail twitched slightly.


            "She's gone. You made sure of that." Cecelia filled her glass with apple juice from the pitcher on the table. "So, what are you going to do with us?"


            "We've got a delightful interview and processing procedure lined up," Sifton stated, almost wishing the night had hostiles instead. Though he would gladly exchange more paperwork for a mission where all of his men came back.


            Cecelia briefly looked around her sisters. "I understand."


            "We're not doing anything bad," Ranma reassured. "We're just going to check you out, and keep you someplace safe."


            "Safe?"


            "You know, it's a dangerous world. Why else did you move your family out here?"


            Cecelia nodded slowly, marveling at the spark of hope within her. "But why? Wouldn't it be easier to just kill us?"


            "Easy's not the same as right," Sifton sighed slightly. "Do we have your cooperation?"


            "Yes of course." Cecelia wondered if her family actually had a future.

 

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

 


            Before Sam or Naoko could knock, the front door to the Tendo-Saotome residence opened. "Good to see you two," the platinum blonde succubus greeted as she let the two teenage humans in.


            "You don't have to show off that you knew we were coming," Naoko muttered as she bent down to take off her shoes.


            Ukyou chuckled. "Oh, don't do that. Mom's not home."


            Sam frowned. They had called ahead, but it made sense Ranma was called on a mission, especially given recent events.


            The demoness smiled "She's just at a neighbor's house. Helping with the move."


            "Oh?" Naoko asked.


            "Come on," Ukyou lead the pair through the house, then out the kitchen door. The three crossed the patio and then were about to round the dojo when they stopped.


            Sam boggled at the diminutive old man. Lounging in a wooden lawn-chair, he wore a worn gi and was happily sipping from a sake tumbler. A long, sturdy pipe was resting on the table.


            Naoko had a bit more experience and bowed at the old man. "Honored Elder."


            The old man lowered his ceramic cup onto a small side table. "Human girls? Civilians too. Ukyou?"


            The blonde raised an eyebrow. "They're Mom's friends, Sensei . From school."


            "Bah, don't be so formal." He turned to Naoko. "Though I do like that they're polite." His apprising gaze turned more lecherous. "And I must say, Ranma's got such wonderful taste."


            "I'm Takeuchi, Naoko; this is Carter, Samantha; and you are?"


            "Happosai, Grand Master of Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu." The bald old man beamed


            Samantha was reminded of habanero peppers. They might be tiny, wrinkly and funny looking but they were incredibly powerful.


            Naoko was more focused on what the man had said. "Indiscriminate Grappling? Some kind of mixed martial art?"


            "Obviously, it's what Ranma and her kids do," Sam noted.


            Happosai grinned at the blonde. "Right you are. My first two students were Genma and Soun. They wanted to join the houses; something that Ranma did beautifully."


            Ukyou rolled her eyes at the pun. "Yes, well I'm taking them over to see Ranma at Eve's."


            "Ah yes, now that's a woman." Happosai smiled and leaned back, eyes half closed in memory.


            Ukyou shook her head. "Pervert."


            "Said the sex demon. I seem to recall you and Misako getting so carried away that you broke a wall." Happosai's dreamy expression floated up as he refilled his tumbler.


            "Exactly, sex demon." Ukyou crossed her arms over her chest. "I've got an excuse. What's yours?"


            "Perverted old man that founded a martial arts school to help his hedonistic hunger."


            "The more I learn about Sunny's family..." Sam trailed off.


            "Yeah, between this and her Grandmother," Naoko shook her head.


            "Don't forget Red's mother." Happosai shook his head. "Can't believe Genma let her get away."


            "It's like Sunny was born just to be a succubus." Sam said.


            "Do we really have to go into genealogy?" Ukyou asked.


            "I could give the girls a little demonstration." Happosai's lecherous grin shifted, focusing on the present, instead of fond memories of the recent past.


            "Don't take their bras," Ukyou frowned then added. "Or grope them."


            Tears welled in the old man's eyes. "I work so hard to train you girls, and this is the thanks I get? You won't allow an old man some simple pleasures? What next, will you take away my sake? My tobacco?"


            Ukyou's eyes flared orange. "Don't ham it up old man."


            "Awww, but you broodlings are so fun to tweak. Not like Red."


            "You're just saying that because you've both got the same taste in lingerie."


            Color drained from Sam's face.


            "He doesn't wear it. He likes to look at women wearing it. He used to steal them too, but he stopped that."


            "That's because you took the fun out of it," the old man pouted. "There's no thrill when there's no hunt, no chase."


            "That hasn't stopped you from 'volunteering' to do our laundry."


            Happosai chuckled. "I just want to pull my weight around the house. You girls are so busy, with all that physical activity. It's the least I can do."


            "Uhg... this is like when my Uncle Jayne and Aunt Vera came over," Samantha shuddered.


            "Strange family?" Ukyou raised an eyebrow.


            Naoko coughed. "You have no idea."


            The succubus looked between the two humans. "Yeah... let's go to Mom."


            "Have fun." Happosai leaned back in his chair.


            "Right..." Ukyou shrugged before they resumed crossing the yard.


            As they entered a small path that ran through a small grove, Sam looked over her shoulder. "Nice guy."


            "You never had a creepy grandpa." Naoko looked around. "So, where are we?"


            "Auntie Eve's place, it's kitty-cornered from our house," Ukyou explained as they approached the back of a cedar-sided house.


            "A house near yours just happened to go on the market?" Naoko flatly asked.


            "You make it sound like the secret agent demons did something unethical, I'm sure they simply had Principal Drake lean on a few mortgage holders," Sam stated


            "Such imagination," Ukyou snickered as she knocked on the back door.


            The door opened, revealing another blonde demon. A starched white apron, tied in back with a big bow, covered a poured-on blue blouse with puffy shoulders and a skirt that flounced and bubbled over the blonde's generous hips before flaring in and stretching over her long legs. Shining white stockings peeked out of the shin-length hem and vanished into slim glossed cobalt pumps. "Oh, company," Eve smiled as she stepped back. "Please come in," she purred running a manicured hand through luxuriously long and teased tresses that had buoyant body rivaling the redhead's lofty locks.


            Sitting at the kitchen table, Ranma looked up and smiled. "Hi guys!"


            "Hey Sunny!" Naoko looked around the sparse kitchen. "How's things going?"


            Ranma frowned briefly. "Busy."


            The tall demoness' lips formed a pout. "Yes, work's been keeping her very busy."


            "Must be nice to unwind," Ukyou said with a knowing smile.


            "Subtle," Sam deadpanned, closing the door behind her.


            "They are succubae," Naoko reminded.


            Sam looked around the bare kitchen. "You just moving in?"


            "Moving in was easy," Eve noted, straightening a seat.


            "Don't have much furniture then," Naoko stepped into an empty room. Freshly painted walls gleamed. Containing only a few heavy duty plastic crates, she presumed it was a dining room. Turning she saw another pale redhead enter from the opposite end of the room.


            Her hair was cut in a short pageboy and she wore a grey Lycra sports bra, running shorts, and light boots. A gleaming handgun was secured in a form-fitting nylon holster. "Friends of Red," the demon stated as she discretely sniffed the air.


            "How?" Naoko sighed. "Oh, you can smell her on us, can't you?"


            "Yes," the redhead extended her arm. "Morgan."


            "Naoko, and that's Sam in the kitchen," she said gesturing behind herself. "So... you're one of Eve's kids?"


            Morgan smiled slightly.


            "And what do you do?"


            The redhead's grin broadened. "Just a sec," she said before running back to the living room.


            "Now you've got her started," Eve smirked as she opened a mostly bare cupboard. "So, how do you girls take your coffee?"


            "Sugar, no cream," Sam said.


            "Black," Ukyou stated.


            "I don't like coffee, sorry," Naoko said.


            "That's okay, neither does Ranma. Would you like some juice?" Eve asked.


            "Sure." Hearing Morgan return, Naoko turned around and... stared. "That's a... big gun."


            "Isn't it?" Morgan gushed, while cuddling her rifle to her chest.


            Naoko continued to stare. She knew the girls were strong, but the effortless ease with which she hefted it was ridiculous. "So... does it have a name?"


            "Name?" Running a hand down the barrel, Morgan frowned.


            "Isn't that what you girls do? I know Misako named hers."


            Stroking her gun, Morgan slowly nodded.


            "Well.... something to think about," Naoko said as she backed into the kitchen.


            Sam chuckled. "One of yours?" she asked Eve.


            "Is it that obvious?" Eve asked as she pulled a pitcher out or the refrigerator.


            "Would you move into a house if it was just you?" Sam asked.


            "More-so, you're Sunny's sister. Of course you're going to get kids."


            "Really?" Smirking, Eve leaned on the counter and tapped the pitcher. "Perhaps you would know. You did manage to stay friends with Ranma and stay human."


            Ukyou chuckled as she fiddled with the coffeemaker. "Tease."


            "Naturally," Eve purred, before gliding over and resetting the coffeemaker and straightening it so it was square with the wall and counter.


            "So how are... things?" Sam asked.


            Ranma's satisfied little smile evaporated. "Stupid bubble-headed princesses."


            "Oh?" Sam frowned. "Well, can you talk about it?"


            "Is Misa-chan causing problems?" Naoko asked. "Wait... you said bubblehead not bimbo."


            Ukyou snickered.


            "Defining a bubblehead as a liability in combat, are we?" Eve smirked as she poured out the coffee and mixed in sugar.


            "Sure," Ranma shrugged, accepting a glass of grapefruit-juice. "I mean it's... it could be worse."


            Naoko chewed her lip. She was all but certain that the recent "troubles" were related to her friend's stress, but... "So why can't you... deal with her?"


            Eve's crimson lips curled into a broad grin. "I've asked her the same question, Dear."


            Ranma took a sip. "It'd be a mess. Unpredictable."


            "You're talking about this Moon royalty right?"


            "Yeah, the other group of recent transfers that haven't been in class," Sam added.


            "That's correct, their failure managed to get Queen Serenity to come back," Eve said, locking her gaze with Ranma.


            The redhead nodded; she was adverse to lying, but omission was an easier pill, and Need to Know could not be ignored.


            Sam raised an eyebrow. "Really? So that imperial queen is back? What, did she have some sort of failsafe? If the others screw up enough she'll reincarnate too?"


            Ranma smiled. "Something like that... just in case."


            "So is the big old queen gonna try to take over the world again?" Naoko asked.


            "That would certainly make matters simpler," Eve's voice was cold.


            As the awkwardness of the following silence grew, Sam frowned into her coffee "So you've got Morgan... have any other daughters?"


            Eve immediately smiled. "Yes two, Sophie and Morrison."


            "Morrison?"


            "Her first name's Richard," Morgan said in a sing-song voice.


            "Ouch, she gonna pick a new name?" Naoko asked.


            "She's still making up her mind," Eve said.


            "Androgynous names are convenient for succubae," Ukyou stated.


            "You would know," Morgan teased.


            "I don't see what the problem is," the blonde human shrugged.


            Naoko sipped her juice and turned to her friend "Of course you wouldn't, Samantha."

            Sam glared.


            Ranma laughed. "It's okay, my name's fairly gender neutral."


            "Sunshine?" Sam asked.


            "No... not that one.


            "DarkStar?"


            "Don't go through all my names. You know what I'm talking about."


            "But being obtuse is fun," Eve said as she adjusted her apron.


            "So, having work troubles?" Naoko asked.


            "And you can't solve them the normal way?" Sam added.


            Eve shook her head, and stepped over to Ranma. "I keep telling her there's a simple solution."


            Ranma crossed her arms. "The worst part is that there's a glimmer of hope. I mean if this was all a write-off..."


            Sam nodded in realization "You got roped into training this person didn't you?"


            "Not right now," Eve kneaded her sister's shoulders, generating a pouty purr. "We had to force her to take a bit of a break."


            Ranma arched her head back. "We're running against the clock here. There's gonna be another attack."


            Eve let out a few crackling pops on the redhead's shoulder blades. "Yes, there's always another attack." She leaned in to Ranma's ear. "At least now we've broken the little brat."


            "Yeah.... she is much easier to handle now."


            "And who knows, maybe your little Slavic friend will take up your offer." Eve pressed her thumbs to Ranma's neck. "I know you'd rather be playing with her than our little queen."


            "You talking about Sunny finding a girlfriend?" Sam asked.


            "Sounds more like a euphemism for battle," Naoko refilled her mug.


            "Like there's that much of a difference," Sam scoffed.


            Naoko pondered as she added sugar. "Depends. One sounds angrier than the other, though it sounds like this training's even more stressful."


            "Some people are too dumb to live, but too stubborn to die," Morgan idly noted as she inspected the dials on her scope.


            Continuing her thinking, Naoko stirred her drink. "Now... if this problem of yours gets really.... bad, what then?"


            Ranma raised an eyebrow.
           


            Eve chuckled. "The simple solution."


            "I see." Naoko tapped her chin. "And the status quo? In the long term I mean?"


            Ranma sighed.


            Sam chuckled. "So that's a no."


            "Then why worry." Naoko chuckled. "Either things will get better or... you have that solution."


            Ranma looked up. "That's... true."


           "So don't get that wound up. It'll just drive you crazy, and it's not like you don't have a solution." Naoko suggested.


           "It's not that simple."


           Naoko smirked. "Sure, it is."


           "It's only simple because we're not telling you everything," Ukyou insisted.


           "Details, details. This is Sunny we're talking about." Naoko took a sip. "Good coffee.


           "Thank you." Eve gave a slight blush. "And you're correct. Ranma is very direct."


           "Yeah, you don't do complex, Sunny. If there's a problem you take care of it." Sam gave a thumbs up.


           Ranma leaned back. "So, I should just ignore all the political intrigue, alliances, and strategic preparations, and instead just... barrel through."


           "Direct action is your strength, Mom."


           "Even at meetings you're blunt and straightforward." Eve looked the two humans over with a small smile. "I think they've got the right idea."


           Ranma ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah... It's not really up to me, is it? If our little Princess doesn't want to grow up, well that'll just be the way it is."


           "Don't worry the small stuff.


           "This isn't really small," Ukyou dryly noted.


           "Really? Has Sunny ever gone up against a real problem other than directly? She isn't exactly shy about these things," Sam reminded.


           "Exactly, I mean you're a demon, Sunny. Slaughtering those that displease you is part of the deal," Naoko said.


           "Yeah! Be whimsically homicidal." Sam added.

 

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

 


           "Do you know what makes you weak?" Mistress Mercury strode over to the kneeling purple-haired woman.


           Sailor Virgo flexed her fingers and gauged the distance between herself and the evening-dress wearing dominatrix. "No."


           "Not going to venture a guess?" Mercury chuckled and looked up at Sailor Orion. "How much time?"


           Orion looked up from the series of runes she had been etching onto a silver block. Several glowing crystals were put into recessed slots around the circumference, while a thin silver crown sat in the middle of the circle. "I think we're almost ready," Orion ventured before consulting a nearby table containing a thick bound book and a thin computer screen.


           "Excellent," Mercury purred before turning back to the former-Amazon. 'I believe we were discussing your weakness?"


           "Yes," Virgo spat.


           "I had been trying, trying to make us better. The Queen, you, myself, Orion, everyone." Mercury walked over to a small silver-inlaid ebony bookshelf that had been heavily bolted to an oak table. "At first I thought we all had different problems. Different things that made us all weak. A lack of experience, a lack of skills, a lack of power."


           Mercury looked out the window and at the city sprawling before her. "But that's not really it. We all have the same weakness."


           Virgo kept herself from sighing.


           "Do you care to guess what it is? Either of you." Mercury's eyes flashed between the two Senshi.


           "We're human?" Orion dryly asked, returning to her engraving.


           "Oh, very good!" Mercury laughed. "That was what eluded me! It was such a simple thing. I had the answer in my hands; Venus showed me, showed us, the way."


           Virgo frowned. "What of the Senshi, what of Queen Serenity?"


           Flipping out her tessen, Mercury raked the edge of her ice-fan across Virgo's face.


           With a heavy thud the purple-haired teen hit the floor. Bleeding lightly, she leapt to her feet and drew her swords.


           "That blow would have snapped a human's neck, and here you are ready for more." Mercury chuckled. "It's time we stopped pretending. It's time our Queen stopped pretending."


           Lowering her blades slightly, Virgo hesitated.


           "Delusions of humanity will only hurt us. Our enemies, our allies," Mercury smirked. "do not suffer the same illusions. Why should we?"


           "What of Setsuna?" Orion asked.


           "She is our primary threat. She has used an external threat to justify... changing our Queen. Forcing her to her twisted will."


           "And worse, she stole plans from you," Orion noted.


           "Yes," Mercury frowned for a second. "Setsuna.... Setsuna has shown me the problems of being so limited, of thinking so small. Can you comprehend how long she's waited? The kind of patience it has taken for her to ensure that the proper opportunities will arise." Mercury stepped over to her chair and picked up a wineglass.


           She studied the cut-crystal structure. "She has the Key. She is the Gate. Against a threat like that, anything...." Mercury opened a bottle. "For the briefest moment I had hoped... hoped that the Russians had killed her, and fate, sensing my desire, granted my wish.


           "And in giving my wish, confirmed my deepest fears. We've seen that Setsuna lives, but in another body." Mercury steadied her hand as she filled her glass. "Do you realize what that means?" she turned, nearly spilling her glass.


           Mercury sighed at the blank faces. "To her... bodies are nothing more than... this," she raised her glass. "They're something convenient she can pour herself into. Do I need to explain what that means? For her? For us? For the Queen?"


           "And Usagi has no idea."


           Mercury scowled. "Yes, Puu could tell the Queen exactly what she is, and poor, trusting Usagi would simply smile. The Queen can't live with such delusions; we can't live with such delusions. Action must be taken, we must realize what we are. All of us."


            "That's why you changed Minako?" Orion asked.


           Virgo sighed and sheathed her swords. Her Mistress tended towards these asides, though they normally would wrap up after about this much time.


           "Venus was a prototype. Things have become more... refined."


           "What's the next step, then?" Virgo asked.


           Mercury sipped. "Oh, you'll see. Don't worry, we'll have our Queen back."

 

 

End chapter 25

 

Author's Notes.  Unfortunately for my prereader's sensibilities, Mal de Veste's suit is real. It's from James Lileks' Dorcus collection of horrible men's wear.

http://www.lileks.com/institute/dorcus/assassin.html

 

Also Ranma's scene where she tempts Arisha has a sequence familiar to any Babylon 5 fans.

 

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..