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 26 Replacements and Remembrance Part 2

 

 


            Walking towards one of the Quonset huts, the lavender-haired succubus split her attention between it and the tree-line, where those nice soldiers and some of her girls were running down a makeshift trail.


            "So why didn't you run?" Ranma asked her when they were just outside the building.


             Blushing by an almost imperceptible tinge Cecilia looked up at the clouds. "I didn't run."


            Ranma flicked some dirt off her leather pants. "Yes," she stated handing her canteen over to Cecilia.


            Blinking in surprise, Cecilia took a drink. "The Black Devils would have killed us."


            "Black Devils?" Ranma asked taking her canteen back.


            "That's the unit-name the JTF2 boys got stuck with." Nabiki said, not looking up from her knives.


            "Ah, neat."


            Cecilia looked at the door.


            "Still, why didn't you run?" Ranma repeated. "I don't mean when we came, before that. You had enough money to keep your girls comfortable. A bunch of bus tickets or even hitchhiking couldn't have been out of your price range."


            Leaning on the wall, Cecilia looked down at her shoes. "What would running accomplish? If you wanted me dead... what could I do?"


            Nariko raised an eyebrow. "You still left the city."


            "They only went just far enough to be out of Mom's territory." Nabiki closed her blade and holstered it.


            "So you left my... territory and what... tried to make your girls as comfortable as possible? That's it?"


            Confused, Cecilia looked up. "What else is there?"


            Ranma smiled. "Good answer."


            Swallowing, Cecilia felt her tension ease. "All we have is each other."


            The redhead nodded. "So, why Black Devils?" she asked, looking at her daughters and her first cousin once removed.


            A slight smile crossed Cecilia's lips. "I'll show you," she said before leading them to an adjacent Quonset hut. As she opened the door a trio of paint splattered succubae turned and charged towards them.


            The most youthful looking, a tiny girl with a head full of tight white ringlets pounced onto Cecilia. "Momma!"


            Ranma smirked slightly.


            Cecilia hugged her and the two other girls. "Hi Hazel! How's it going, girls?"


            "Good, I've got the logo drawn out, and Hazel and Priscilla are helping me color." Desiree fingered her brush.


            "Can we see it?" Cecilia asked, releasing the embrace. However, Hazel hung close to her.


            Desiree blushed. "Uh... yeah." She then led them to a cleared wall on the barracks.


            A large upward-pointed arrowhead was painted on the wall while a pair of incomplete black succubus outlines lounged on either side of the arrow's tip. Inside the partially filled red arrowhead were letters that ran from pencil sketches on guidelines, to outlined, to fully painted in. The letters were shaped in a T, with JTF2 capping the top and CANADA running vertically. Straddling "Canada" was "Black Devils" in a looping script.


             "Very nice," Ranma nodded.


            Desiree and her sisters beamed.


            "So why Black Devils?"


            Nabiki chuckled. "It's a name a similar unit earned in the last big war the humans had; First Special Service Force I think. They specialized in stealth and tactics, so much so that often their fights ended with out a shot being fired. Some few who got away started calling them Black Devils. I heard Kasumi thought it was a fitting name for this new group here."


            "The last big war? World War Two you mean?" Cecilia raised an eyebrow.


            Nabiki nodded. "Yup."


            Nariko bowed her head slightly before turning to the mural.


            Cecilia blinked. She knew Yuki was born on earth and DarkStar's history was obvious too. She shook her head at the strange perspective. "Anyway... that's not right. My window got shot out by that nice Sergeant Brummet." Cecilia pouted slightly.


            "Really?" Nabiki's tone was bone-dry.


            "Oh yes, he apologized very gentlemanly ."


            "Cecilia, what was the rule about Fraternization?" Ranma asked.


            Nabiki chuckled. "Mom... you really don't have a place to argue about that."

            "Be discrete and don't force the officers to do something about it?" Cecilia offered.


            Ranma nodded. "That's right."


            "I do have experience with discretion," Cecilia said a touch offended.


            "But what about your girls? You making sure they won't get in trouble?"


            "They've paired up, mostly." Cecilia added.


            "Mostly?" Nabiki looked at the three Cecilia broodlings.


            "Yes, Priscilla and Isabel are still single. Are you curious?" Cecilia asked, concealing her hopeful eagerness. Strengthening ties would be very useful, and Yuki's youthfulness was akin to that of her own broodlings.


            A girl with a light green ponytail tied behind one ear blushed. "Mom...."


            "It's okay, Priss." Cecilia assured.


            Ranma turned to Nabiki. "You wanna stay here?"


            The pastel-blue-haired girl looked Priscilla over. "Sure."


            Looking across at the pink pastel Cheongsam-glad demoness Priscilla smiled nervously. "Your hair's nice. Those tiny ponytails are so cute. They really go great with that pageboy of yours."


            Nabiki smiled and fingered the bows that held her mini-ponytails. "Thanks. I love how the ribbon holding your ponytail matches your shoes, and that's an adorable little jumper you have on."


            "Well what about your stockings? The embroidery on them goes perfectly with your heels." Priscilla gushed.


            "Don't forget your knee-socks." Nabiki countered coyly.


            "Have fun girls. I have to talk with DarkStar." Cecilia looked down at Hazel who pouted and let go of the lavender haired demon. The slight girl then darted over to Desiree who had abandoned working on the mural and instead was watching Yuki and Priscilla's feedback loop.


             After a couple steps Cecilia turned to Ranma. "Mother-Alexia was fond of that style."


            "It shows," Ranma dryly noted as they exited the building


            . "Do you disapprove? Why didn't you change her?"


            "That's not Mommy's way," Nariko crisply stated from behind the brood mothers.


            "You didn't need a strong hand to help your girls." Ranma smiled. "You've dealt with Alexia's legacy too."


            Cecilia sighed. "They're good girls. That made it easier."


            Ranma put her arm around the lavender-haired demoness. "They all are."


            For a moment Cecilia's tail stiffened and pointed downward, but after sensing the warmth radiating from the redhead she eased up and leaned into the hug.


            "You've done good."
           


            Cecilia raised an eyebrow. "But you can still help me?"


            Ranma rubbed Cecilia's arm. "Sure."


            The lavender-haired girl looked over. "With... security?"


            "It's a dangerous world. You're lucky JTF2 found you first."


            "Well, I was afraid you'd find us," Cecilia sheepishly admitted.


            "Awww, you were scared of me." Ranma hugged her tighter.


            "It wasn't cute! You're very scary."


            "I am?" Ranma frowned.


            "My nightmares, my spawn's nightmares were all about you!" Cecilia wailed. "Do you know how many nights I had to soothe my girls because they were afraid you'd be coming for them?" Her knees weakened and she felt her weight being held by the redhead. "The most I ever hoped for, the most I ever dreamed... was to be left alone."


            Adding her other arm, Ranma lifted the girl up. Holding the girl close, the redhead stared into the other demon's eyes. "Your brood will not need to fear me."


            Cecilia blinked but those violet eyes stayed locked on her. "But what do you want? My girls can make yours very happy... I'm sure-"


            Ranma loosened and arm and tapped Cecilia's lips. "There's no need to force that. We're family, and Alexia is gone. I promise your girls will be protected."


            Cecilia looked down. DarkStar's hold was comforting, but... "So, is that it then? Spoils of war? Alexia lost; you won."


            "Sure, why not?" Ranma grinned. "Better than the alternative."


            Cecilia's stomach tightened. "Alternative?"


            Ranma grinned and lifted the girl back to her feet. "Well there's your nightmares."


            "That's not funny." Cecilia pouted.


            "Now, now, you're doing great," Ranma patted Cecilia's shoulder. "Don't worry I'm not the beast Alexia made me out to be."


            Relishing the contact, Cecilia expanded her senses, making sure she could still feel the broodlings that were out running with the Black Devils. "Thanks, I just... it's been so hard."


            Ranma's eyes flicked to Nariko who gave a slight nod. "Oh?"


            Cecilia automatically started walking towards her brood's building. "You know what it's like, being a... brood mother."


            "You had a tougher time of it than me."


            Stopping, Cecilia turned and broke out of Ranma's one-armed hug. "Huh?"


            "I had my family and friends supporting me. You, you were completely alone." Ranma's eyes again went to Nariko.


            Frowning, Cecilia turned to look at the black-haired guileless demon "What's this about?"


            Ranma chuckled. "Nariko likes you."


            "Really?" Cecilia arched an eyebrow at the quiet demoness. "So what do you think of me?"


            "You remind me of mother." Nariko's red eyes softened before she lovingly looked towards Ranma, who stepped over to the teen.


            Sensing the powerful affection, Cecilia blinked. "Huh..."


            "Something wrong?" Ranma asked, embracing her daughter.


            Looking over her shorter mother's head, Nariko almost passively watched Cecilia.
           


            "Familiar, that's all," Cecilia muttered. Those red eyes were colored by experience, but beneath that, at its core... was an eager little broodling, hungry for love. Cecilia opened her mouth, but closed it after a moment's thought. Unlike the majority of DarkStar's spawn, Nariko was never Mother Alexia's.


            But she was DarkStar's eldest. She was the first demon that DarkStar turned, which meant that any... damage... Despite herself, Cecilia's eyes widened in shock, and she wondered just how DarkStar could have failed. What had gone wrong with Nariko?


            Ranma glanced at Cecilia's tail. "You seem distracted."


            Cecilia paused. "Well, my family did get relocated by military force," she eventually said.


            Ranma shrugged. "Yeah, that'll happen."


            "You're taking this well." Cecilia stopped at the door to her brood's barracks.


            "I've had time to get used to this, and besides this gig isn't without benefits." Ranma smirked showing her fangs.


            Cecilia laughed. "So, what are you two doing today?"


            "We've got some training, but that's not for a bit." Ranma looked to Nariko. "Why?"


            "Really?" Cecilia opened the door. "How long is a bit?"

 

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

 


            Serenity saw the pair of demons glide to the table she and her Senshi sat at in the Mess Hall. "There you two are."


            Rei looked up at the clock on the wall. "You're late, too."


            Her mirth receding, Ranma idly adjusted her vest. "Really?" She then made a production of looking at her wrist. "Not by my watch."


            "That clock is running fast," Nariko's mirth deflated slightly as she looked at the wall-clock.


            "Still, you two are obviously disheveled." Kiri noted.


            "Yeah, and you smell like sex," the blonde who looked like Usagi blurted.


            The redhead raised an eyebrow.


            Kiri sighed. "Yes, that was what I was alluding to."


            Ranma crossed her arms. "And what does that matter? We're on time and we're ready for training."


            Rei narrowed her eyes.


            "There's no need for hostility," Serenity said before turning to Rei.


            "Maybe it's jealousy." Nariko buoyantly said. "They excel at neither skill."


            Rei bristled.


            Serenity held up her hand. "Yes, anyway. Back to today's training."


            "Good." Ranma smiled fractionally. "Today we'll be doing the basics. Various ready positions, grips for those of you with weapons, 'trigger' management, various draws, and clearing any malfunctions."


            "Malfunctions? It's magic." Makoto asked.


            "Just because it's more reliable than mechanical means doesn't make it foolproof," Kiri stated.


            Ranma nodded. "Right. Then we'll start with shooting on the move. You girls are way too static. Following that is offhand casting, and the situations where you'll need to do it. Then after lunch we have tactical skills with cover, concealment and the difference between the two. Something else you're really lacking in."


            Serenity sighed. "Yes, yes. At least we're not giving those speeches anymore."


            Ranma blinked. "Right, we've also got structure clearing and shoot – no shoot decisions. We'll also see what kind of rapid fire and precision limits your attacks have. From various angles and positions."


            Rei raised an eyebrow at the list. "What happens when we finish with that?"


            "Why you repeat it." Ranma said, shocked. "Again and again."


            "Most of training is practice, repetition." Nariko added.


            "Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent," Ranma explained.

"You won't have time to try to remember, try to recall this stuff. That's why we keep it simple."


            "I'd hardly call your combat style simple," Kiri noted.


            "That's because you haven't been trained." Ranma snickered. "It's all very simple."


            "Not terribly reassuring. How come simple is better than what we've been doing?"


            "What you've been doing is sloppy, slow and stupid. Simple doesn't mean easy. Simple just means minimizing the chances to screw things up." Ranma shook her head and before looking to Kiri. "That's what you don't get. Combat screws up enough plans, enough schemes. Keep it simple, keep it flexible."


            Serenity looked between the demons and her Senshi. "Right, uh... sounds good."

 

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

 


            "So, who do you think is worse?" Shest leaned back onto a tree trunk and looked at the valley that spilled below them.


            Desyat raised an eyebrow.


            "It's a quick either or question."


            "Who are you talking about?" Desyat sighed before switching to an inaudible transmission . "Magical girls versus mercenaries? A hoard of shifty South Slavs versus a cocky thug in an ugly suit? Or maybe this is your circular way of asking me about a certain de facto-realist versus her true-believer subordinate."


            "Perhaps I'm inviting a comparison between nightmares, yours versus mine." Shest rose to her feet, and kept rising. Levitation was a vital compliment to her other powers.


            Desyat's hand snaked down to one of her blades, concealed by her light jacket. "I didn't think yours could be described as a who," she eventually said taking care to scan their surroundings.


            After planting a surveillance pod against a thick branch, Shest lowered herself and then her gaze.


            "You did push very hard for Galina to accept the agreement Ryzhaya bestiya offered Arisha," Shest transmitted back.


            "I know what Ryzhaya bestiya and her ilk can do to us, you know what they can do to us, what they did to Vosem."


            "And what you saw was worse?"


            Shest chuckled, and adjusted the plain backpack she wore. "You don't get it. You weren't in the hotel room with us, and even if you were you couldn't... see."


            "Pardon?" Desyat asked out loud.


            This time Shest's laughter had a more prolonged and pained termination. "Wrong question, wrong question."


            Desyat studied her companion's face. Shest always was a bit... different. Alone, she was the only one who could manage the Deep Diver system. "What's the right question?"


            Shest chuckled as they walked down the forest path.


            Desyat stopped. "Well?"


            "Do I have to tell you everything? Shest closed her eyes. "We've been led to believe that the Zaika and her ilk have a weapon, but... You read Liza's dossier?"
           


            Desyat gave a resigned sigh. "The one she wrote before or after her sockets rejected the first set of oculars?" She clarified.


            "Yes, Ryzhaya bestiya really damaged the poor girl. It was generous of Galina to assign her research duty," Shest's voice was carefully even.


            "At least we had enough spares to put in yet another set."


            "Might have been best if we didn't," Shest muttered.


            Desyat coughed. "Hopefully she'll be a hundred percent... soon enough."


            "It's those books... we don't know who we're dealing with."


            "You're not talking about Ryzhaya bestiya." Desyat said while Shest planted another device.


            Giving a short bitter laugh, Shest shook her head. "That much should be obvious."


            "Aren't you putting those a bit close?" Desyat asked, referring to the surveillance pods.


            "No, this is how Galina wanted them," Shest sighed. "I don't get this whole idea, we know where they're training. Why are we bothering way out here?"


            "Because any closer and they'd know we were watching." Desyat shook her head. "Think about it. Relocating to a more secluded area works to their advantage. They're the ones that have to work with one hand behind their backs in an urban area."


            Shest let herself fall to the ground. "At least it's a nice hike."


            "Yes," Desyat adjusted her scanners. "Galina thinks that they'll use a national park for training."


            "Or maybe we're the ones being trained,"
Shest's transmission had a sardonic undercurrent. "You have to admit, the risk of discovery is good motivation."


            "And yet here we are chattering."
Desyat pulled out a paper map and checked their orientation, just like a normal girl on a hike.


           
Shest laughed. "They can't track our transmissions, not at this range. If they were close enough to pick up signals this weak, they'd be close enough for us to detect them."


            "There's other means than technology." Desyat looked to the west, the direction of the mercenary base.


            Now, Shest stopped. "Yes, your... guest is a problem."


            "I'm not the only one he's bothered; remember the business card Galina found?"
Despite herself, Desyat smirked. Strategically, she knew it would have been better if she had simply gone mad, the idea of yet another faction watching them by ill-understood means was disquieting, to say the least.


            However, confirmation that this Murdock, as he called himself, existed shored up Desyat's sanity, at the expense of increasing their risks and rote paranoia.


            "Arisha and Dve'nadtsat found the tainted tools." Shest gently reminded.


            "I know, I'm the one that suggested they check them!" Desyat venomously transmitted.


            "So you think this Murdock infiltrated a precision instrument company to dope a traceable impurity as a... distraction?"


            "Sure, we don't give our tools the same scrutiny as our parts, that's what the tools are for, but our tools always have to be close at hand. Makes for an appetizing explanation for his ability to locate us doesn't it?"


            "And this is a convenient way for us to stop eh? Is there no end to your paranoia?"


            "I'm still alive." Desyat shook her head and the two resumed their silent walk.


            "I agree, we need to be vigilant and expand our knowledge."


            Desyat sniffed. "Murdock's not alone as a problem. So, back to Zaika. She has something? Some... pet?"


            "Look at Dve'nadtsat's reports. Does that seem so far fetched?"


            "It should be. I can accept that non-human creatures exist. That's just aliens but... the world is logical, it's scientific. It's all physics. Even Murdock's work ultimately has an explanation."


            "Physics." Shest snorted. "Physics explains what I can do, that doesn't make it sane. Face it, the physical world is merely a worm-eaten deck nailed to rotted pilings sunk into quicksand. Just because we can walk on it doesn't mean it's stable."


            She shook her head. "Look at us. Do you know why it never went past us? Why we were the only prototypes that worked? Our cybernetics aren't that special, hell, we can make most of them ourselves."


           
Desyat prepared another device and scanned for a suitable emplacement. "It's our flesh. A unique genetic quirk."


            "Then how come clones didn't work? You remember the twins from Vladivostok."


            Desyat shivered. The other subjects were... she paused and blocked off her memories. "What's your point?"


            "Comrade Scaglietti's shortcut."


            "Yes, he found a way to get our cybernetics to interface with our bodies, but that's just magic."


            Shest raised an eyebrow. "Just magic? Weren't you just trying to defend the rational nature of the universe?"


            "Magic is any sufficiently advanced technology."


            "No, it's not. Magic is something worse. It's the worms; it's the rot. You can use it to eat away at the rules, the structure of things but.... it comes at the cost of your footing. Don't you see!" Shest slammed her hand down and it slipped through the ground. "Magic is how we cheat. Using bits of it we can cut corners and stay safe but what I did... that pulse. There's a reason that... thing was there."


            "I though you triggered the pulse in response to... what did you see?"


            Shest gave a wan smile. "The truth."


            Desyat kept her expression neutral; those words were never good.


            "The truth." Shest repeated. "The truth is... We thought we could make politics rational; we thought that we could have a scientific technocracy; we believed that in the end we could make humanity better; we believed that we had the knowledge make a better world a world that would be steered by our hands." The cyborg laughed. "Why shouldn't our understanding of the how the universe works be any less flawed than our understanding of humanity?"

            "If Arisha heard you..."


            Shest snorted. "She'd yell at me until Galina shut her up."


            "So... is there a match? Between what you saw and what Dve'nadtsat's research dug up?" Desyat stepped back and circled around slightly. The forest was quite scenic, worthy of being a park or a wilderness training facility.


            "It doesn't make sense." Shest looked down. "If the Zaika and her flunkies can control..."


            "They've got something real bad up their sleeves don't they?" Desyat sighed.


            "And that's wrong. People that can enslave a cosmic horror to use as a panopticon shouldn't be so... incompetent. Dve'nadtsat's reports are clear, fools don't deal with these creatures and survive. Do you think your Murdock is a fool?"


           
Desyat's eyebrow raised. "Yes, but where is this going?"


            "Someone that can inslave what I saw, and use it as a reconnaissance and surveillance tool, they can't be dumb, not if they want to stay sane."


            "And yet Zaika is..."


            "A spoiled moron,"
Shest smirked. "But we knew that."


            "Yes, yes, you've deduced that an empty headed princess is being led around by her nose. Maybe they're just too dumb to succumb." Desyat eyed their path.


            "Ignorance is bliss, but there are limits. There's more at work here than we think."


            Desyat smirked. "Really? Did the demons, magic, or the global conspiracy clue you in?"


            "Being a pawn is delightful," Shest moved a few rocks to place on a device.


            Desyat knelt down and studied a pile of beer cans and other debris. Rising from the potential shrapnel pile she looked around the forest floor. The capitalist's decadence did make for strange behaviors.


            "You'd expect more," Shest noted moving to Desyat's side.


            "I'd blame our friends but..."


            "What do you expect from people that think they can own everything? They don't want to wreck their property," Shest said... mechanically. In the motherland the people owned everything, everything. Thus things were disposed in whichever way served the greatest good, mostly leaving equipment out to slowly rust back into the earth.


            Desyat raised an eyebrow. "You okay?"


            "I don't like it here," Shest nearly snapped. "Sorry, it's just..." she shook her head.


            "We're still well away from the fences and their sensors. This is an area hunters still use, we're... okay." Desyat reassured.


            Shest chuckled. "Yes hunters do use this forest."


            "Poor choice of words." Desyat cracked a smile, and led her partner back down the path. "Come on. The sooner we get done here the sooner we can get..."


            "Yes, back to our plotting and squabbling South Slavs."


            "Would you rather deal with Murdock? Or maybe help Dve'nadtsat."


            Shest sighed, the Deep Diver system was hers and hers alone. "I don't have a choice now do I?"


            "So it goes."
Desyat shrugged.

 

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

 


            As the wind blew through heavy pine trees, the queen sighed, lifted herself up, and hit her head on the bunk above her. She grumbled, rubbed her head, and slipped off of the bed.


            "Too tall," she muttered. Stretching her spine she shifted over to the beds and smiled at her sleeping Senshi. After a few seconds she turned to her staff, running her hand down the polished wood.


            Her armored gown hung on a peg from the bunk's vertical support, shorts and a Lycra top were on top of her case, but... she was already wearing a silver bodice under a gauzy white chemise. She stretched her shoulders, wincing slightly at the light, and not so light, bruises from the previous days training. Shrugging, she slipped a leather belt over her shoulder, holstered her wand, and slipped on her armored boots. She walked to the heavy door and disengaged the lock. The door swung open and the agents on the other side snickered.


            The queen looked down and chuckled at the incongruity herself.


            "There a problem?" Andrea politely asked. She was not a fan of this operation, nor being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, but at least things were more... controlled.


            "No just stretching my legs and using the restroom."


            "Right, Steve, Jared escort," Andrea drawled.


            Agents Deschain and Dirac nodded and flanked the silver-haired young woman.


            The queen turned to the more lanky of the two agents guarding the hallway. "So you're the one that adapted our jamming crystals."


            Jared shifted his rifle. "I'm on the team yes."


            "So who did you piss off to get stuck babysitting?" Her levity crashed when she noticed the exasperation on the men's faces. "Sorry, I was just trying to make conversation... I didn't... I know you're short handed and watching me is...."


            Jared sighed at the babbling woman. "No, it's not that. This is just part of the job."


            "Miss your operations rotation?" Deschain chuckled.


            "Kinda." Jared shrugged.


            Stopping in front of the bathroom, the queen raised a silver eyebrow. "Pardon?"


            "Jared's got an inter-dim rating, which means he's often brought in when things start getting... screwy."


            "Yeah. Anytime there's weird stuff with teleporting or phasing, they call in inter-dimensional specialists." Jared nodded to Deschain who then stepped into the bathroom.


            The queen nodded. "So, with all the stuff going on here..."


            "We thought we had more time, then those Russians started their games."


            "Hopefully they won't do that again," she said stepping towards the bathroom door.


            The door opened and Steven stepped out. "It's clear."


            "Uh... thanks." The queen stepped into the large bathroom. Bearing marks of recent repair, it was a plain affair; with bare concrete flooring, a few stalls, several urinals, and row of sinks on a countertop. She eyed a stall, but instead turned to the mirror.


            Gasping, she looked at her body. Despite not being tied very tight, her bodice was very... supportive and her camisole only provided minimal concealment of her wiry, but endowed form.


            Rotating her forearms she arched her head and back, causing her spine and slender neck to crack. Man... no wonder Mom liked those tight gowns. Anything to help with support, she thought to herself.


            She looked down and truly understood the agents' mirth. Her camisole barely reached her thighs and below her waist all she had on was a pair of gray panties and her boots. "Great... way to look regal," she sighed and pulled at her hair, causing her bun to disintegrate, spilling her hair down her back.


            Sighing, she picked up a few silver strands of her newly shortened hair. and ran them between her fingers. She shrugged and went to one of the stalls. Recalling Eve's advice, she adjusted her belt to keep her wand holster stable.


            After finishing, she got up and readjusted her clothes. Exiting the stall, the queen halted. By the sink a blonde with twin pigtails stood stone still, her eyes casually resting on the queen.


            "Uh... can you at least blink?" Serenity hesitantly suggested as she began to wash her hands.


            The princess closed her eyes and then slowly opened them; part of her wondered if her plan was worth it, and if this were the best time to tell the queen.


            "I didn't think... I mean..." The queen turned to her "daughter". "Do you need to be here?"


            The blonde frowned. "You were gone."


            "Awww... Mina.... you don't have to do that."


            Smiling the younger teen's features animated, she wondered if her queen really knew what she would have to do to protect her. "Mother, don't be silly. I'm the one they're after."


            Serenity narrowed her pale-blue eyes. "Mina don't be this way."


            "What do you expect me to say?"


            The queen looked down. "I don't know. I don't know how I feel, this body..." she looked at the mirror.


            The blonde shrugged. "It's just a body." If her queen had body issues now...


            "Yeah... I guess you've been through worse."


            The faux-princess stared, wondering if her plan was the right thing to do. It seemed basic enough but...


            "This is a new hairdo and face. Not like what..."


            "You mean Ami?" The blonde smirked. "Yes, this is nothing. This isn't the first time I've done this." She turned to look at her reflection. "But how are you handling things?"


            "I feel like an imposter."


            The princess chuckled. "Though that's not true, is it."


            Petulant eye rolling was jarringly inconsistent with the silver-haired woman's lean regal frame. "Yes, again with the succession. It's just such a mess. First Luna doesn't tell us who the princess is, then she forgets that the princess is actually the queen."


            The blonde's eyes flashed red. "At least you have the option to ignore your stupid feline advisor."


            Serenity watched the crimson quickly retreat from the other girl's irises. "I'm sorry."


            The blonde turned away; perhaps tomorrow would be a better time to propose her plan. "You should be trying to get sleep."


            "I'll be ready."


            Minako-as-Usagi looked her queen over. "Yes, unless DarkStar decides to wake you up early."


            Serenity sighed. "She would surprise me like that."


            "Could be worse. The Russians could be the ones that wake you up early."


            "We're on a Company base." Serenity's eyes darted to the door.


            "Yes, they've shown a great reluctance on attacking WIC," the blonde dryly remarked.


            "Are you okay?"


            At the end of her rope, the blonde looked up. "Well, you've reminded me that my cat was killed, that I've been mutilated and transformed by an insane, wannabe dominatrix, and that I'm pretending to be you. I guess being killed once by the Russians isn't enough. All this while you've also complained and whined about how people expect you to be a queen and leader."


            Serenity lowered her head. "Uh..."


            Minako narrowed her eyes. "You're supposed to rule the world one day, and this is what you complain about."


            "I'm sorry."


            "Don't apologize." She had made her decision. Her queen needed her help; Serenity needed the most protection she could give her.


            Looking up, Serenity saw a facsimile of herself spread her arms. She stepped forward and let the shorter girl embrace her. She then gasped when the blonde tightened her arms.


            "The more you do something the cheaper it gets." Resting her head on Serenity's chest, Minako increased the pressure, crushing herself into the taller, more developed women.


            "Breathing..." Serenity tried to expand her diaphragm. After managing to inhale, she felt the pressure lessen, but that was only because the force had spread over a larger area. Even the blonde's legs were pressed against the queen and felt... embracing. Looking down she saw Minako's form turn golden and begin to... run.


            The warm pressure spread and soon Serenity found her vision cutoff, her mouth and nose were also covered though she still found air being eased in though some type of valve system. Completely enveloped, she was momentarily pressed down by Minako's full mass. Soon however her encasement went rigid and she found her weight supported. Not just her limbs or her curves, but her entire body was being lifted and held.


            The covers over her eyes snapped off and Serenity let out a shocked gasp. Reflected in the mirror was what would happen if a battleship and a Victorian queen mated. Tons of metallic armor had been shaped into a widely female form.


            Looking down she saw that she was much higher off the ground than before, at least eight feet. Emerging from a solid annular anchor around her waist, rings of interlocking heavy golden plates descended until they hovered just above the ground. Internal buttresses supported each baroquely engraved plate while still leaving room for her legs to move.


            Stepping forward, Serenity could tell that her feet had a slight heel and were thickly encased in some type of boot-like footwear. She looked around, concerned at how much... smaller the room was. She expected the ceiling to be a bit lower, but not become oppressively claustrophobic, and as for the walls, she had crossed the room in less than a single stride and risked hitting the walls, let alone fitting through that tiny doorway.


            She looked back down at her dress. Unseen by her, structural armor needed to support the weight was so massive that it added a several inches in diameter to her legs, bulking her thighs out to where they distorted and spread out her armored skirt, exaggerating her legs and buttocks.


            Atop the skirting anchor ring, the armor continued. Gold over an inch thick ran from her waist to her chest, which had grown in apparent size to a disbelieving degree. This armored bodice was polished to a mirror shine and flexed with high liquidity. The only adornment was an upper "hem" engraved in a scalloped pattern that consisted of dozens of crescent moons.


            Above this hem which came down in a gentle "U", her armor thinned to a mere quarter an inch. The "skin tight" silver ran up and around her neck and over a face that was recognizable as Serenity's, if severely rounded by a thick silver coating. Over her eyelids and lips the armor thinned, though was still about an eight of an inch. Between engraved eyebrows a crescent moon nearly glowed with golden light. Her gray-silver Serenity eyes were right at home behind the armored mask.


            Her ears, the back of her neck, and the rest of her head were all protected by several inches of armor that was sculpted into a tightly bound golden bun, reminiscent of a redoubled French braid. A silver crown with elegant arches nestled into her helmet hair; its ruby crescent moon centerpiece a pale sister of the one on the queen's forehead.


            Stoutly armored, but long, arms descended from layered shoulder plates; the uppermost of which came even with the queen's eyebrows. A five inch mirror-silver crescent moon adorned each hulking shoulder mount. Coming out of a series of articulated elbow pieces were massively engraved and simply massive forearm guards that added at least two inches of material on each side.


            Emerging from her forearm guards were not hands but weapons. Her left arm terminated Minako's silvery sword, while her right now sported a bulked version of her wand. Bearing two brutally heavy scalloped crystal crescents, the shaft was flush with her forearm armor. Runes sullenly glowed along the shaft of the wand. Serenity could still feel her hands, but they were buried under layers of armor and could only manipulate her weapons.


            "What do you think of my gift?" Minako's voice whispered into Serenity's ear, and it was Minako's voice not the Usagi voice she had been using.


            Serenity lifted her left arm; that is to say she twitched the muscles and the Venus armor responded by moving the armor around her right arm. "What?" she asked, more surprised that her mouth actually opened than that it had deepened to countertenor, a bit too deep for a normal female voice


            "Putting me inside golden exo-armor was the first thing Ami did to me." Minako's whisper chuckled. "Then she turned me into the armor."


            "Is... is this what Ami planned?"


            The whispering laugh repeated. "My, no. Ami simply thought the armor was a neat way to transform me, but I was thinking of a way to protect you and... the armor does that."


            "Why is it so... heavy? I look like a fertility statue."


            Within the armor, warm pressure pulsed up and down Serenity's form. The pressure was even to the point of cutting down gravity, and she felt like she was floating in warm steadily pulsing water. It took her a moment to realize that she was feeling Minako's heartbeat.


             "That's not me, I simply accentuate your curves. As for the thickness, those Russians have some heavy firepower. This is the best I can do to protect you."


            Serenity continued to stare at her armor... her Senshi. "Wow... that's really some protection."


            "Thanks," Minako said shyly.

 

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

 


            Agent Dirac blinked at the feed on the portable display to his pattern scanner. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever seen," he said checking his rifle. "And I've worked on these girl's magic trinkets."


            "Explains the scanner jump," Deschain muttered going through his gear. "I've got a couple charges, we could rig the door up, pull back" he suggested glancing forward and to the left.


            "No. They'll take the door." Kasumi pointed to the two demons. "Steve keep on the feed and the scanners, if they go funny we’ll act. Tell me if the jamming system goes funny."


            "Running green," Misako and Nariko echoed confirming their personal jammers were on.


             "Until then we wait for Ranma or Captain Jarvis to takeover."


            "Some extra oomph would be good," Misako suggested, shouldering "Sasha".


            "No, Mining the door will force us to withdraw a bit, and I want you two to be close if things go bad, and if things go real bad we've got a 'chopper on route and  orange has a couple AT4's."


            Deschain nodded. "Good missiles, and if this thing has main-battle tank grade armor?"


            "A javelin team is on it's way too, and if that's not enough, there's our the MRLS system, or the Canadians can use one of their Copperheads." Kasumi said, referring to the 155mm laser guided artillery shell.


            "The Black Devils have an M77 now?" Deschain chuckled.  "Good for them."


            "It looks big, maybe slow, clumsy." Nariko said, fingering her sword's hilt.

 
            "Right," Kasumi exhaled. She could see why Ranma found this girl so... frustrating.

 

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

 


            Staring at the armor's... at her reflection, Serenity frowned... causing metallic lips to shift. "How are you talking anyway?"


            "Same way I talked in my metal form. I've got speaking crystals near your ears. This can patch in other commutations and audio input. I can even give a visual overlay."


            Serenity blinked and found translucent blue lenses slide over her eyes. Displays formed and a few icons and text appeared before the lenses vanished. "But how..."


            Minako laughed again. "I told you, Ami already built the suit. I just adapted her systems. I don't recommend talking in battle; an open mouth isn't armored. Don't worry, we can still talk in a fight. but I can filter in air for us if needed. It's totally self contained, and powered by my Senshi magic. Your magic can power it too, right now it's hooked up to your wand, but there's other systems that can use that extra power."


            Serenity lifted up her arms, bearing a broadsword the other an artillery-class wand. "How can I eat?"


            Minako chuckled. It was good that Serenity did not ask about external speakers, even through there were obviously internal ones by her ears. She wished that she could have started with full containment, but knew her queen could not take being mute... yet.


            "I'll teach you how to use my blade," Minako assured as the sword shrank in length, becoming thinner. When it was only eight inches long the center of its tip retreated forming two tines backed by a razor sharp edge on one side. "Though this is a battle form. Fine manipulation isn't the point." Minako's vocal assurance was followed by another warm massage.


            "Battle, how can I even move?"


            "You've been moving just fine. We're enormously strong and can move rather quick."


            "We..." Serenity rolled the word around in her mouth. "Still... we are a giant armored... queen."


            "This is where your power helps. DarkStar's suggestion that we look into Wraith Raider cloaks got me thinking and..." Minako chuckled as all of their armor became more and more polished. After becoming mirror-like shine, it shifted.


            Once again Serenity gasped. It was not total invisibility, but it was like being covered in a roughly translucent paint. Within the room, her shape was obvious, but at a distance she would blend into the background.


            "Of course I've also got a jammer and teleportation spells," Minako chuckled, returning them to visibility.


            "It's a start," Serenity allowed. Watching her, currently, fork-ish limb she started moving her encased left fingers.


            "Oh, suppose we start training you on your new appendages," Venus chuckled as the lenses reappeared and went from blue to clear. Several simple displays popped up, virtually hovering a foot or so in front of Serenity's eyes. "First, I'm sorry, but it will help you learn."


            There was a slight pain in Serenity's hands and a headache as a modified version of one of Mercury's spells triggered.


            "Now just lean back and let your fingers move," Minako said before the blade grew out. Each time it changed lengths one finger moved a certain way; thickness caused another finger to move, length another. The changes were accompanied with a heads up display showing the changes. Serrations, tines, curves, tips and other changes popped up as well.


            The demonstration cycle completed, Serenity then started moving her fingers and was rewarded with a vast array of blades and even a couple axe-like shapes.


            "Now for a tutorial," Venus said, as a sword shape appeared on the "display".


            Serenity nodded, her headache lessening and her hand feeling somewhat but not really numb. A simple broadsword appeared before her. Smirking, she adjusted her fingers to match her blade to the display. Once that happened the image was replaced with a thicker and curved saber. She then fiddled around until she got a match and the display changed once again. It rewarded points for speed and detracted points for errors.


             With practice it took her less time and fewer mistakes to get a match. As puzzles grew in complexity, it took less thought about the fine motions. "Pretty fun game." she said after completing a dozen "levels."


            "You're doing great!" Minako proudly said.


            After a couple dozen more quick levels, Serenity stopped thinking in terms of fingers and started simply thinking in shapes, and letting her hands respond to the controls. As such, her score started spiraling up. "Good idea. It's just like a videogame."


            "I knew you'd like it. Now let's get your other arm into it." Minako smoothly said as the display became a split screen. The left half had the sword game, while the right showed her giant wand cannon. "Your wand has less visible flexibility, but there's still a few spells you can use with it. I'm sure we can think up more too."


            Serenity nodded and started playing the new game. Minako was right, her wand was not that complicated. Especially since she could not fire it, not in the bathroom. However, it did just enough to split her attention to further reduce the amount she thought about it.


            "Hey Mina... this thing's got your attacks too."


            "Why yes," Minako chuckled. "It'd be very silly if we went from two to one and lost firepower."


            Serenity paused the game and zoomed in on the wand display. "Okay... but there's this little bar chart that says its like twice the power of before," she said, not wondering how the chart knew what her unsuited power was.


            "Yes, it'd be only slightly silly if we went from two to one and merely maintained firepower." Minako gave Serenity another full massage. "Not only can we tap into both of our powers, but this is a heavy duty wand that can channel a lot more strength and give even more control. Sure it weighs sixty pounds but that's not a problem anymore."


            "Oh.... nice." Serenity leaned back and savored the sensation of having her back unknotted, her curves caressed, and her stress melt away. She then shrugged causing almost seismic scale motion in her shoulder plate. She un-paused and returned to playing her game. After a good ten minutes she laughed and exited the program. "Okay, Mina... you're right. I can see these being useful in battle," she said idly waving her sword arm. It came down on the counter and feeling the edge begin to bite, Serenity shrieked and retracted the blade, preventing further damage.


            Serenity looked at the sword. "I could feel that!"


            "Of course," Minako gently said. "What good is a blade if you can't sense it."


            "How?" Serenity said as she gingerly placed the blade on the sink and could feel the cool metal.


            "Once the game mapped your motions, I was able to tap the blade's a sensor array in. Similarly, if someone touches the armor, you'll be able to feel it." Minako said a bit smugly.


            "Another one of Ami's tricks?" Serenity said as she stepped over to the hand dryer. She made a blunt-tip blade and feeling the activation button, she pressed it.


            "The armor was; the sword was a quick mod on my part," Minako said as Serenity held the blade under the jet of warm air.


            Putting the blade across the blower Serenity laughed. "Ooooh, feels nice," she said, picking up the air's warmth and force.


            "I'm glad you like it. Your arms will be very important in battle."


            "Great game." Serenity nodded. The blower stopped and she drew back her sword and gave a few swings. Knowing what air felt like she could now feel the wind as her blade cut through the air with each stroke.


            "Having fun?" Minako drawled.


            The door clicked open and Serenity automatically spun, heaving her bulk towards it. Her sword grew and came up in a defensive position while her wand leveled at the intruder.


            The petite form of Kiri Meiou blinked. She leaned back into the hall at the mixture of tense and amused agents, demons, and demonic agents. She pulled herself back into the room, and for a brief moment her eyes flashed with iridescence.


            Serenity paused, unsure if the smaller girl was annoyed, amused, or angry. In the brief moment where it looked like Meiou was deciding what to be, Serenity was reminded that "Kiri" was simply a fresh body that Pluto was inhabiting.


            Kiri blinked again and stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. Walking around the titanic armored form, Kiri hummed to herself.


            "Well?" Serenity said after the green-haired girl had completed a couple laps. "Aren’t you going to say something."


            "I could make a pun about not thinking Minako had it in her to be a princess." Kiri then leaned forward and ran her hand over Serenity's right gauntlet.


            Awed as she felt the contact, Serenity then gasped when Kiri ran her hands over the prongs of her wand. It felt almost as good when Kiri switched hands and placed her palm over the immense curve of her chest.


            "I knew Minako was up to something, but this..." Kiri gave a single laugh. "It figures. This was what Mercury did to her after all." Her tone turned flat as she gave a mental note to place a call in the morning.


            "Oh? You know? Of course you'd know. You're all knowing on stuff like this, but not anything important. Like preventing Mamoru from dying, or finding where the Russians are. How come you don't know that?" Serenity demanded, the armor further deepening her voice from countertenor to tenor and gaining a bit more reverb.


            Kiri pursed her lips. "Did you two really think you could spend three quarters of an hour in the bathroom and not be noticed? At first I thought you two were relieving stress. Turns out I was right, and explains why the agents laughed when I suggested you two were simply having sex." Kiri sighed. "Anyway Ranma's coming in. Should be... interesting." Pondering ruined plans, Meiou kept her face even. She knew the other demons were waiting for their Mother, which suited Kiri fine, the less she had to repeat meetings like this, the better.


            "Ranma?" Serenity looked down at the vast expanse of amour. "What'll she think?"


            Kiri thought of the sight in the hallway and laughed. "That you and Minako went and turned yourselves into a war behemoth." she patted the back of the anchor ring where it rested above Serenity's back armor and gargantuan thigh supports. She chuckled at the queen's reaction. "You could always take Minako off."


            With shocking speed, Serenity rotated 180 degrees. Her silver visage looked down on the short girl. "No. That demon's been on my case about not taking things seriously, not being a real warrior. Let her see me now. Let her see what Minako's done for me."


            Kiri smiled, partially at the view that loomed above her. "Oh, and what does Minako think of this?"


            Serenity tilted her head. "Minako promised to do her best to protect and serve me. This is what she wants."


            "Well, it's an interesting try," Kiri admitted as she circled back around. She then stretched up and ran a hand over the eight foot tall queen's "hair".


            "Man, I'm not sure what Puu's looking for, Mina," Serenity muttered. Unfortunately even mutter carried when it was rather deep and slightly reverb.


            Kiri smirked and stepped back.


            "You know, you don't have to talk to me," Minako chuckled.


            "Really?"


            Shaking her head, Kiri stepped to the sink and gave her hands a quick wash.


            "Yes you can just think to me, I've been mapping your thoughts every time you speak. I'll show you."


            Serenity felt the armor on her face constrict as her jaw was pulled closed and her armored lips sealed. She tried to talk but with her jaw frozen a more echoed version of her deep voice bounded to her ears. "What the?" Serenity blinked. "How... I can't move my mouth."


            "It's simple." Minako assured. "Every time you talked spells monitored your surface thoughts. After a half hour they've got enough to simulate your speaking."


            "Oh another of Mercury's things But... you can read my mind?"


            "Only what you're 'saying' " Minako chuckled.


            Kiri looked at the still armored queen. "Are you okay?"


            "Just nod," Minako whispered.


            Watching the huge rounded face give a mechanical nod, Kiri sighed.


            "What should I say?" Serenity asked.


            "Do you need to speak?" Minako gently asked.


            Serenity turned and looked at the perplexed young woman. "Well yeah!" She tried to open her mouth but found the armor holding her jaw in place.


            "Let her ask a question." Minako assured.


            Serenity frowned, and was surprised that her armor let her lips do that, but not open.


            "So... any reason for the silent treatment? Or is this just a nice little gift?" Kiri patted Serenity's skirting.


            "Well?" Serenity impatiently asked.


            "Now you think about your answer."


            "You tell me, you're the one that wanted to show this to me."


            "As you wish my Queen,"
Minako's voice was bemused.


            Kiri tapped her foot as the armored figure not only went silent but still.


            A couple seconds later the Queen's mouth opened. "Apologies Puu, Minako was merely showing how my internal communications eliminate the need for me to vocalize with her," her deep resonant voice recited, as if reading off a display.


            Kiri looked up and saw a blue glow around the queen's eyes, confirming her suspicions.


            Serenity tried to reopen her mouth, but found the armor had once again locked. "Did I do good?" she confusingly asked.


            "Perfect," Minako allowed a massage. "See how much better that was?"


            Giving a silent moan at Minako's "magic fingers" Serenity thanked the discretion the sealed mask afforded her. Not only could Kiri not hear her, but Serenity knew that her flushed cheeks were also concealed.


            "See, privacy can be fun," Minako giggled, increasing the frequency of her kneading.


            "So, it's some training?" Kiri asked.


            Serenity nodded.


            "That's good, no need to risk breaching your armor just to say yes," Minako whispered.


            "Well, good enough." Kiri shrugged. "I'll get the others. May as well have them see you before Ranma arrives."


            Serenity raised an eyebrow.


            "Yeah, Rei's gonna have fun with this," Kiri snickered as she stepped out of the bathroom.


            After the door closed, Serenity turned back to the mirror. "You seem happy." Minako tracked the big, closed lipped of course, grin on her queen's face


            "I don't think anyone can say I'm not being serious about battle, now." Serenity snickered, looking at her arms in the mirror.


            "Well, we've still got a lot of training. You still have to learn how to use the armor."


            Serenity nodded. Hearing the door open she turned and smirked at the three Senshi and one Mau.


            The cobwebs of sleep were immediately banished by the sight before Makoto. She had gotten used to heavily armed demons and soldiers, but this...


             Starting, she looked up, and up. Dominating the room, towering above her and Rei was a riot of polished and engraved metal and silver. Her eyes traced up the ranks of interlocking armored plates that marched up and in. Then they went over the solid girth of some sort of flared heavy ring. Above that convex and hugely concave curves reflected a distorted image of the room and the Senshi.


            On either side of that were reinforced gauntlets. In place of hands were two partially recessed mounts, one bore a shimmering sword that lazily changed shape, while the other held a giant, stumpy wand eight inches long, six inches in diameter. The wand was covered in even more intricate runes and tipped with a pair of heavy crescent shaped crystals. The figure's arms went up into set of oversized golden pauldrons. The uppermost section of each was emblazoned with a giant mirrored crescent moon.


            Relatively speaking, the armor thinned for the figure's upper chest and face. It turned silver and consisted of a faithful if rounded rendition of Serenity's face. The back of her head bore a solid mass of silver sculpted into a braided bun. Her ears were covered by the hair sculpture, her nostrils looked sealed, her lips were held together and armored, and her eyes were solid deep blue framed by silver eyelids. A thin silver crown with a single ruby crescent moon as its center piece was built into the armored hairpiece.


            The ruby moon was overshadowed by the golden moon that dominated the giant figure's forehead. Smoothly the golden queen turned her head towards the Senshi and her face shifted into a close-lipped smile. Her arms went down to her sides, or at least rested her weapons on the flared bell of her skirting armor.


            Now completely still, the eight foot tall figure looked even more statuesque.


            Cradled in Kiri's arms, Luna blinked and nodded with recognition.


            "What the hell's going on?" Arms enflaming, Rei turned from the queen to Puu. "Don't tell me Mercury actually got Usagi? Mina's just been a trap... again?"


            "Do not speak ill of Minako," Serenity intoned, leveling her blade in Rei's direction.


            Spine tingling, Rei turned towards the sonorous but still female voice. Swallowing, she looked past the blade to Serenity's impassive, silver visage. "So what is this all about?"


            "What should I say?" Serenity asked Minako.


            "Why do you need to say anything? Delegate." Minako displayed an arrow pointing to Kiri.


            "Right." Serenity transmitted before turning to Meiou and giving a nod.


            "Oh? Okay then." Kiri raised an eyebrow. "Remember how Ami turned Minako into that gold armor? Mina adapted that form into-" she gestured at the queen. "- this."


            "That's some heavy armor." Makoto stared at gold globes, each seemingly bigger than her torso.


            Serenity smirked and shifted her angle to give Makoto a front-on view.


            "This is crazy!" Rei glared. "Without telling anyone, Minako decides to scrap the decoy plan to turn herself into... this? What even is this?"


            "It's imperial armor," Luna said squirming out of Kiri's grip. Leaping onto the armored skirting, she grinned smugly before bounding up over the golden chest. "Not a bad version," she said examining the armored face before lying down on the space between the shoulder guards and neck.


            "You know of this?" Rei eyed the prone cat.


            Luna looked up from her sprawl. "A certain blonde did ask me about the Wraith cloaks and anything else I could remember."


            "Great, is this another upgrade you've pulled out of your butt?" Rei demanded.


            "Not really. The queen never bothered with such armor. She had enough control and experience with the crystal to make it moot. Members of the extended family did use such devices, but their construction was expensive, complicated, and not something that fit the Senshi. So, neither they, nor their designs were sent forward. "


            "Really?" Makoto asked. "And now you remember what wasn't preserved?"


            Luna hesitated. "Fine... I don't quite remember what was stored, but I know that stuff was stored... and there's got to be plenty of military hardware that the Queen didn't preserve. She was a bit pressed for time, what with the major defeat and all."


             Luna looked up at the silver face. "But... that didn't mean one of you couldn't make an approximation."


            "This... this is artillery, while the Sailor Senshi are... a scalpel?" Makoto asked.


            Kiri nodded. "And when a pro-Unification, political message needs to be sent."


            "This is still insane. The queen had the right idea." Pausing, Rei floundered, trying to wrap her mind around the glimmering immensity that dominated the room. "We don't need this type of... weapon."


            "They can separate," Kiri mildly reminded.


            "So? Unless you manage to hide every single time they fusion, merge, or whatever, the Numbers will wise up, but that's moot as even if... IF this is kept a secret you've still got a giant lumbering target with crescent moons!"


            "Yes, that much is obvious." Kiri gave a wry smile.


            "The point of this decoy princess plan was to reduce the firepower concentrated on Usagi."


            "That's a real problem. First of all we have to see just how well this suit works, before scrapping the whole decoy idea."


            "Good, at least someone's thinking." After Rei sighed, a shadow fell over her. Mute, Rei was transfixed as the queen closed in. Unfortunately for Rei, Serenity's dress stuck out furthest.


            The armored edge of the skirting pushed Rei and knocked her forward. As Rei tipped over, Serenity bent at the knees, causing the interlocking layers of her skirt to telescope slightly.


            Rei found her head landing in the V where Serenity's chest armor shifted from thick gold to less-thick silver. Shocked at the relative softness of the armor, Rei felt herself being pinned back by the flat of a currently dulled blade and the wand-barrel. Still digesting the embrace, Rei hardly noticed her feet being lifted off the ground as Serenity returned to her full height.


            "Don't be a bad girl," Serenity's deep voice crooned, cradling Rei.


            Rei flushed both at the mortifying embarrassment of her position and the disturbing warmth emanating from the armor.


            "A bit simplistic, but to the point," Minako noted, her voice almost... distant. Part of her did miss having hands, if only to pet Luna. Though it was nice to have a cat again. "How's it feel?"


           
Serenity looked down at the almost... drowsy Rei. "She's angry, but calming down. This energy transfer works!"


            "We've got power to spare."


            Serenity gave a mental nod before her mouth opened. "Minako put a lot of work into this, and we are going to try it out. Right?"


            Rei gave a dazed nod.


            Makoto tilted her head at the tableau before her. "Are you using the power of love?"


            Serenity turned her head up and gave Makoto a little smile.


            "Only you would find yourself turned into a giant magical war machine and still think to use love." Makoto chuckled while taking a discrete step back.


            "We do have both of 'em working in there," Kiri added.


            "I promise, I will do my best to protect you all. You serve me and you deserve a better Queen." As Serenity spoke her wand rose up and the crystal crescents cupped the back of Rei's head. A silver flash enveloped the girl, then darkened and turned to a red aura. Broadly smiling, Serenity lowered Sailor Mars back to the ground.


            "I look like Venus." Mars stared at her uniform, the seifuku style was the same, but the bodysuit and skirting had changed from silk to polished bronze. Her dark purple bows and ribbons were still fabric, as was her red collar. Instead of white gloves, she had finely articulated metal armor over her finger. However, her shoes had transformed into molded bronze high heeled boots and leg guards emblazoned with her symbol.


            "Our queen is biased to that style," Kiri noted while Luna smirked.


            "Oh, I remember," Mars shrugged her shoulders. The metal bodice was disturbingly form fitting, even taking into account her belly button. At least the magic was adaptive enough to let the material shift with her body's motions.


            "That's really cool!" Makoto appraised, stepping around Mars' new uniform.


            "If you're such a fan, why don't you do it?" Mars groused.


            "Well.."


            "No, I insist." Rei smirked.


            Finding her wrist grabbed by a vise of bronze, Makoto found herself flung in the direction of the queen, who moved shockingly quick to catch her. Makoto sighed happily; the embrace should not have been comfortable, it should not have been warm, but...


            There was a flash from the wand and Sailor Jupiter stood in a twin to Mars' uniform. Save she had pink bows and green collar over sea green patina copper armor. Fingering her skirt, Jupiter looked up to see Serenity's proud smile.


            "Damn, I'm next," Kiri sighed. Running and jumping up to hug her queen, she concentrated and felt both Usagi's rushing love and Minako's smug satisfaction. The queen's power flooded her and as Kiri's clothing transformed something knocked... loose.


            Armor went from metal to shaped sheets of obsidian that wrapped her young frame. Holding the long shaft of the Garnet Rod, Sailor Pluto looked down at her black armor. Fleeting iridescent whirls danced its surface.


            "Why don’t you have metal?" Mars asked.


            "This fits my theme better." Pluto stated, making sure that she was stabilized. It would be embarrassing if she had to get a new body, after less than a week in this one..


            "I dunno, all those rainbows and reflections are rather cute."


            Pluto's pout underscored her apparent age.


            "What is it supposed to show, infinity and time?" Rei asked.


            The green-haired girl gave Rei a long glance. "Whatever, let's go with that," she said, looking at her watch.

 

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

 


            Waking up, Cecilia untangled herself from her brood. Smiling she stood up and walked over to the bathroom at the end of their barracks. The now familiar sound of an overhead helicopter greeted her. Afterwards she opened a trunk and started getting dressed. She was nearly done when an explosion went off in the distance.


            Her ears perked and as she scrambled over to her radio there was another more distant explosion. The door opened and after recognizing the visitor, relief flooded the young demon.


            "Sorry, there's some heavy... weapons testing going on today," Lieutenant Hanna Hill said, her eyes darting to the stirring brood. Eating habits were one thing, but Hill found something strange about communal sleeping.


            "There wasn't any live-fire training scheduled at this time." Cecilia had checked out the schedule, if there had been she would have woken up earlier.


            "This is... sudden." Hill stepped back into the pre-dawn gloom. "Maybe you see it."


            Cecilia raised an eyebrow, and a second later a wide lance of light shot out in the distance behind the officer. Blinking she walked up to Hill and... stared.


            At the far end of the joint training camp a golden figure steadily lumbered across the clearing. It was only when Cecilia saw DarkStar running several meters behind that she realized just how big and just how fast the metallic figure was.


            The thing was three feet taller than DarkStar and over twice as wide, if that giant skirting was counted. However, despite a plodding lope, the thing managed to stay ahead of a running demon. Idly, the demoness wondered how friendly this giant was.


            Cecilia saw DarkStar sprint up and point towards the mountaintop ruins. Raising an arm, the golden thing obliged. There was another burst of light which was followed by an explosion that further pulverized the concrete and stone wreckage. The redhead shouted something and the figure nodded, before running a few paces, lowering itself, and then... leaping.


            Cecilia stared as the figure arced skyward, though nowhere near the altitude of the orbiting helicopter. Her eyes went down to see the crater the giant had pounded into the ground with its oversized legs. As such, Cecilia missed the ignition. Darting her eyes back up, the demoness' jaw went slack at the sight before her. For a couple more seconds a pulsing plume of light blasted from the bell-like nozzle that was the figure's skirting.


            Further boosted the giant reached an apex of at least a hundred feet before falling towards the ground. This time Cecilia saw the... engine ignite and retard the giant's fall. Despite the retrorocket's deceleration the gold figure thudded into the hillock, but not before its other arm lashed out forming a twelve foot long blade that sliced clean through one of the broken-down target cars.


            Almost smugly, the figure retracted its blade and took a step out of the flattened crater. As it turned one foot sunk into a bit of mud and the figure tilted over. The edge of the armored skirting caught on the hillside twisting it and hastening the golden giant's fall. This time the thud was less impressive, though there was more damage as angular baroque armor churned through the turf as it rolled down the hill.


            Cecilia watched DarkStar saunter over to the fallen figure and rap it on the head with the butt of her sidearm. "Huh."


            "Yeah... that was... " Lieutenant Hill sighed; she could deal with the demons. They might be alien but at least they were more grounded, unlike these other girls.


            "Some sort of magical thing the Silvers are testing?"


            "That's what we were told." Hill watched the contraption slowly right itself. "As a heavy weapons platform, it's powerful enough, until the damn thing falls over."


            "It's all shiny."


            Hill sighed again. "Those girls are adverse to camouflage."


            "At least they're testing it here first, and not just dropping it into battle."


            "Small favors." Raising an eyebrow, Hill reminded herself that the bowed demoness was older and more experienced than she looked.


            "I should get the girls ready and start warming up the Mess."


            "Any problems with KP?


            "Nah." Cecilia watched as the demons resumed herding the disconcertingly quick behemoth. "Cooking for eight, cooking for fifty, once you get to a certain size it scales pretty easily."


            "And it gives your girls something to do."


            "There's more for them to do here than at the house, Lieutenant." Cecilia chuckled. "They brought their books, toys, movies, and games, but out here they can actually play outside and meet new people."


            "Good. Keep an eye out for these Silvers. They could start trouble."


            "Told to the sex demon." Cecilia smiled.


            Hill watched as the golden figure made another rocket-assisted leap. "I have some idea what you and your girls can do, but I don't know what these... Magical Girls are about, and neither does WIC. That worries me."

 

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

 


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


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


            As that happened she folded her knees under her until she was in a double kneel. Soon Serenity's elbows were about even with the tabletop, and she inched forward on her knees. Serenity put her wand arm on her lap and shifted her blade to the twin-tined, knife configuration.


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


            Luna rose to her feet, jumped, and then climbed to the armor's shoulder.


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


            "What should I say?" Serenity asked.


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


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


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


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


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


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


            Reaching down, Serenity managed to cut a pancake but then stumbled trying to fork it with the end of her arm. After giving a whine that only Minako could hear, Serenity found her arm being guided and a steady supply of morsels began arriving at her mouth. Each one coming just after she had finished swallowing.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "Mako!" Rei exclaimed.


            "What? Minako'd make that comment if she could."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            Makoto shrugged.


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


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


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


            "Reassuring," Rei said, dryly.


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


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


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


            "That armor's not... all... bad, but..." Ranma shook her head. "I didn't expect them to screw up things quite this quick."


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


            "The plan barely lasted a full twenty-four hours."


            Eve eyed the queen. "We can scrap it. Force them to abandon this silly armor idea."


            "Yes, we can." Ranma said, thoughtfully.


            "You're not recommending that we give the order now?" Eve asked.


            "When push comes to shove can we keep Serenity out of armor?"


            "Really, we cut our losses then?"


            Ranma poured herself a glass of juice. "We're supposed to be training them, something they badly need."


            "That armor will require even more time in training, time we may not have."


            "And we would have to abandon our decoy plan."


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


            "Yes, though that's not exactly a bad thing."


            Eve chuckled lightly before taking a sip.


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


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


            "That goes without saying. We'd really have to bring in Mom to run some tests. See how good that stuff really is but..."


            Eve raised an eyebrow.


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


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


            "Yeah," Ranma agreed, thinking of Usagi. "Maybe requiring constant training isn't such a bad thing."


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


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


            "Yes.... her." Eve sighed. "Do you think Mercury is clever enough to pull this off?"


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


            "That doesn't answer my question."


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


            "Like the part you play?" Eve smirked.


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


            "She would have done it already."


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


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


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


            Eve nodded.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "Doesn't keep her from being a bimbo."


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


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


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


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


            "That's what Meiou's doing."


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


            "That shiny new uniform is amusing."


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


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


            The redheaded demon gave Eve a sideways glance.


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


            "We knew they'd cause problems."


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


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


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


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


            Eve frowned. "The queen's armor?"


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


            "You think we've been conned."


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


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


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


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


            Ranma purred. "Complacency kills."


            "So you're not ruling out Mercury?"


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


            "A mole?"


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


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


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


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


           

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

 


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


            "Well... this is new."


            Eyes closed, the queen turned to Kiri.


            Meiou stepped forward. "Serenity?"


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


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


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


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


            "She is asleep."


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


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


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


            The armored head tilted slightly.


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


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


            Meiou sighed. "Very cute."


            The mask bearing Serenity's face smirked.


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


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


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


            "Really?"


            "There is a great opportunity before us."


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


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


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


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


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

Kiri sniffed. "The queen does like affection."


            The armor's serene face looked smug.


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


            Minako nodded. "She'll remake me."

 

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

 


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


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


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


            Cecilia raised an eyebrow at Ranma.


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


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


            Giving a thoughtful hum, Cecilia eyed Ranma.


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


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


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


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


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


            "No..."


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


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


            "Assault rifles." Ranma corrected. "An assault weapon is just a political term. Basically any gun that looks scary. An assault rifle is an actual combat weapon, one with select fire. So they can work as a semi-auto carbine or a burst fire or a full-auto light machine gun or some combination."


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


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


            Cecilia looked down.


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


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


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


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


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


            Cecilia nodded.


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


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


            "And yet you still want to help."


            Blushing slightly, Cecilia looked down.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

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

 


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


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


            The apparent Zhivkov bristled, while his clothes were not terribly well-tailored, they did not clash. "At least you know your history."


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


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


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


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


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


            "Oh?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            Zhivkov blinked. "Pardon?"


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


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


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


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

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


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


            Galina faced the Bulgarian. "Slightly."


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


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


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


            "Yes. We are under-strength."


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


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


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


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


            Mal nodded. "Interesting."


            "Not going to call me a mercenary?"


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


            "Then why?"


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


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


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

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


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


            Galina glared.


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


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


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


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


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


            Galina pursed her lips.


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


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


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


            "Thank you," Zhivkov nodded.


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "An unfortunate consequence of her continued survival."


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


            "The demons, exclusively."


            Galina glared at the brutish man.


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


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

 

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

 


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


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


            "As you wish," Minako replied.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            A slight smile passed Venus' golden lips.


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


            Venus nodded slightly.


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


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


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


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


            Venus nodded and there was more rasping of armor. Shoulder armor folded out and the skirting went from the Senshi pleated to something a bit heavier, while still reaching just above the knees. Her hair went from a centurion-like golden crest to the sculpted metallic hair bun. Returning to the wrist mount, her sword once again became a permanent fixture.


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


            Minako smirked.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            The other two girls frowned.


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


            Serenity's eyes glinted. "Oooh."


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


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

 

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

 


            Half of a hill had been excavated and used to widen the remaining half and even bring in the far ends, making a miniature box canyon. Standing before the several meter tall berm were pairs of metal risers, with a sheet of cardboard straddling each. Three meters in front of the earthen mound and the targets were four bundles. The precision machinery gave a dull shine, the containers of high energy chemicals sat fat and heavy, and the fabric harness and pouches rested in curled tangles.


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "All the time?"


            "And why is that?"


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


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


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


            "And when do you do that?"


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


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


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


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


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


            "How?"


            "Removed the magazine and worked the action. Then looked inside. Then worked it again."


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


            Kasumi looked up. "Complacency kills."


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


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


            "Right, bend down and pick up your guns. Do not load them." Misako's eyes glinted. "Hazel! Your gun's drifting. Rule two! This is the SSP; it fires the five-hundred S&W cartridge one of the only handgun rounds that are actually effective in NH combat. Each magazine only holds seven rounds so reloading is vital."


            Hazel blushed and angled the weapon's muzzle back downrange.


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


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


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


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


            "Ohhh, that is simpler," Hazel nodded.


            Misako smirked. "Right, now use the slide lock and hold the slide back.

"Remember that is called a slide lock, not a slide release. Now if your magazine goes empty, it'll look like this. Now why don't we use the slide release?"


            "Uh... it's a fine motion?" Meredith asked.


            "Yup, though the good part of the slide lock is that you can use it one handed, but one handed reloading is an advanced subject. But if you don't use the side release then how do you work the action? "


            Hazel blinked. "We just rack it like before?"


            "Right, keep it simple. You're not going to have time to think about how to reload. Speaking of that, place your weapons back into the holsters, and then pick up your belts."


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


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


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


            "After that you'll get to shoot."


            "Oh." Hazel blinked. "Yay!"


            "Yay, indeed." Gravely nodding, Misako turned to her mother and broke into a quick smile. Looking over the redhead's shoulder, her grin broadened even more. "Oh, hi grandma!"


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


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


            "Just starting," Misako said.


            "They're doing good though."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            After the officer and her daughter had walked several paces back to the buildings, Nodoka turned slightly. "Having her teach?"


            "It's good for Misako; she can use more responsibility," Ranma said as four shots barked in the distance.


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "But you're not concerned about them."


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


            "It's... something else." For a brief moment Nodoka tried to hold in a grin. "In truth, it's actually not that bad... Well, if you ignore the gaudy embellishments. While hands are a real pain to protect due to the articulation, simply covering them up is... limiting, and permanently affixing a sword like that..." Nodoka shook her head.


            "It's pretty dumb. I suppose having it become a big claw could be livable, but as it is, it's far too hobbling." Eight shots, in four overlapping pairs interrupted Ranma's response. "And that giant skirt?"


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


            "It's a giant metal ball gown."


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


            "Yeah her footwork really, really needs improvement."


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


            Ranma nodded.


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


            "Oh?"


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


            "Expanding the brood's capabilities?"


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


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


            Nodoka shrugged. "In a vacuum, it's an impressive weapons system. Her main weapon is a much better focus. That makes it easier to channel heavy energy blasts. However the sword and armor are shiny enough to make her feel invincible and clunky enough to be a real hindrance.."


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


            "The sword is very flexible. Which... mitigates the insanity of how it's mounted."


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


            Nodoka raised an eyebrow.


            "The only reason the sword's like that is to leave her without hands. It forces her to manipulate the sword, forces her to lean on Mina."


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


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


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


            "Really? Do they know it?"


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


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


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


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


            "Noted." Ranma nodded. "Do you think it's usable?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "That shifts the balance of power."


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


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


            "Clever girl."


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

 

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

 


            After watching the trio of clay disks explode, Nariko absently looked at her watch. "Right, break time."


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


            Sophie nodded. "Good work, fair accuracy and okay team tactics."


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


            "Oh yes, especially you and Makoto." Sophie said as she secured the trap machine. "You've worked together for years, it shows. You've got power and teamwork, you just need more formal training."


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


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


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


            "That's where teamwork comes in, when you work with someone long enough, you start to predict how they're going to move," Sophie explained.


            "Honestly, we expect you to forget entirely, and die, and we'd expect you to use comm. gear and understand that combat is a noisy place, but we're no longer even that hopeful,"  Nariko brightly added.


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


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


            "Our meeting," Nariko reminded.


            Rei blinked. "Hmm?"


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


            "Huh," Makoto said watching them walk off.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            Kiri raised an eyebrow.


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


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


            "And things have gotten a lot more complicated."


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


            "Really?"


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


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


            Kiri chuckled. "Yes, there was that."

 

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

 


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


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


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


            Ranma chuckled. "Fine."


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


            The redhead laughed as she slumped down onto a bunk and looked across the room to the couch where the "royalty" sat. "It's your choice. Fight how you want. It's your choice."


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


            The demon's smirk split, revealing her teeth. "I'm under no obligation to cater to your every whim."


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


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


            Serenity glared. "Minako is not compromised!"


            "She was. And now her little experiment has put our plans at risk. Has put you at risk." Ranma spread her fingers. "My help depends on your obedience."


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


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


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


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


            Luna snickered.


            "But you can?"


            "You're right, look at who you're working with now." Ranma then shook her head. "We're family. Even I'm not going to foolishly deal with her."


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


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


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


            The redhead leaned back, smiling broadly.


            "You're not even accounting the current situation." Luna rolled on her back. "We are at your mercy."


            "And yet you still screw up" Ranma's grin floated merrily. "Now that's just too paranoid; even eldritch demon queens have limits. Of course I could be lying to keep you conveniently complacent."


             Minako narrowed her eyes.


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


            "The combat cyborgs?"


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


            "Accommodate what?"


            Frustration doubling, the demon rubbed her head. "How blunt do I have to be? I'm trying to broker a Faustian bargain here."


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


            Still holding her forehead, Ranma chuckled. "Yes, her deal with BlackSky went over so well."


            "Why are you doing this?"


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


            "Are you trying to make me regret my choices?"


            Radiating the patronizing warmth of mock contrition, Ranma bowed her head slightly. "Some degree of self examination or self awareness would be nice, and it would at least make saving your life from your own gross incompetence less of a chore," she smoothly said, her eyes smoldering with amused contempt.


            Serenity glared and gripped Minako's hand. "I get it. I'm not as smart as you. We can't all be eloquent and sophisticated"


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


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


            Minako turned to Serenity and gave a quick smile.


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


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


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


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


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


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


            Eve nodded.


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


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


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


            Ranma smirked. "Technically... you're the little sister here."


            "So that's it. Not even going to use the new armor Min- er... Usagi came up with?" Serenity glared, her cheeks flush at the continued charade.


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


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


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


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


            The demon sisters looked at each other.


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


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


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


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


            "True, Morgan hasn't named hers."


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


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


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


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


            Serenity blinked.


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


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


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


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


            Ranma smirked. "No it's not."


            "Yes, it is a wonder," Eve's voice was dry.


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


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


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


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


            Ranma nodded and tapped the jammer pinned to her chest.


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


            "It's not a weapon. It's an unpleasant surprise. If you insist on this foolishness, we'll get what we can out of it. If you insist on fighting with it, we'll make sure it's not a deathtrap, for us. If you continue to disobey we'll turn you out. If you protest, I'll full-fill the terms of our first contract." The redhead carefully lectured, her forced grin never leaving. "Are we clear."


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


            Ranma shook her head.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "Yeah." Serenity glared. "So maybe, it's not best to make fun of attempts to give me a bit more control."


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


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


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


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

 

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

 


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


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


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


            Usa nodded. "Rabbit of the Moon."


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


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


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


            Hotaru smiled slightly. "What clued you in?"


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


            "Usagi's new friends?" Hotaru asked.


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


            "What happened?"


            "Osa-P closed."


            Hotaru tilted her head. "What?"


            Usa chuckled. "Oh, that's clever isn't it."


            "This have to do with Naru?"


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


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


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


            "But what about the strangeness here?"


            "You two are here," Shingo stated.


            Hotaru nodded, understanding the dual meaning of his words.


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


            "So, it seems you figured it out." Hotaru frowned.


            "Only after it beat me over the head. It's like how I didn't think too much was strange with Usa there," Shingo waved at his "cousin". "At first. After she'd been gone for a couple years, that's when she started seeming strange."


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


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


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


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


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


            "What do you mean?"


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


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


            "What about their families?" Hotaru pressed.


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


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


            "Fathers?" Shingo guessed.


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


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


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


            Hotaru nodded.


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


            "I'm the only one, then?"


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


            Shingo frowned. "Well shit."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            Usa tilted her head.


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


            Usa turned to Hotaru. "We've got a clever boy."


            "What happened to her?" Shingo repeated.


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


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


            Usa gave a bitter little smile.


            "What about you?"


            Crimson eyes hardened as Usa's expression soured.


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


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


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


            Usa inclined her head.


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


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


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


            "Maybe," Usa frowned, looking at Shingo.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "It'd be better than roses."


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


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

 

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

 


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


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


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


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


            The mage laughed. "Oh, so cold."


            The redhead gave a flickering violet glare and strode forward.


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


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


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


            "Yes."

            "It's about the combat cyborgs."


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "And how is Akumi?"


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


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


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


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


            Murdock waved his hand. "Details, details."


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


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


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


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


            Ranma growled.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "Ask Akumi." Ranma narrowed her eyes.


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


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


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

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


            Murdock grinned. "Even you play politics."


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


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


            Ranma snorted. "Really, isn't that your whole plan?" she dryly asked.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "Do tell," Ranma dryly remarked.


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


            Ranma chuckled. "Can't be disarmed."


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


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


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


            The demoness sighed. "Totally wrong."


            "Oh?"


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


            Grey eyes widened slightly. "What?"


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


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


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


            Murdock dropped his cigarette. "Okay then."


            "What do you want to tell me?"


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


            "Must we play this game?"


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


            "Galina's been a busy girl."


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


            "She's been doing some reading."


            "Learning then? Well the military experience they had was of limited use. So, they're boning up on non-humans and magic?"


            Murdock nodded.


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


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


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


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


            Ranma caught the tossed card and gave it a light sniff. She then inspected the list of titles; it seemed to match Incognito's "Can't have them ruining your plans. What else?"


            Murdock smiled slightly.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "Money well spent?" Ranma asked.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            "And?"


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


            Ranma cocked an eyebrow. "Catholic or Protestant?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


            Murdock chuckled.


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


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


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


            "Starting?'


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


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


            "And in return?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

 

End Ch 26

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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