More secrets behind the battle are revealed, while Ranma and Lina wonder just how they feel about each other.
Chapter 7: Troubled Pasts, Troubled Presents
Queen Beryl frowned into the crystal globe which, until it had suddenly gone dark, had been showing her the events unfolding on Earth. She turned the globe over in her hands, examining it from all sides. "What is going on? I can't see anything!"
"The Sailor Scouts have some powerful allies, my Queen," said Chronite.
Beryl let the globe fall into her lap, giving her an unobstructed view of Chronite. "Must you always appear like that?" she snapped.
Chronite bowed in apology. "I am sorry, my Queen."
"Spare me the groveling, Chronite. What news do you have of the battle?"
"The battle is over, my Queen. The Sailor Scouts live, but they have been heavily wounded. Three of ours have returned, but there is no sign of Kusanagi or Sailor Saturn."
"What has happened to them?" demanded Beryl.
"I do not know, my Queen. But I suspect that Sailor Pluto may have done something to them."
"Sailor Pluto? The Guardian of Time? You said she wouldn't be a problem!"
"I believed that she would not, my Queen. When she uses her power, it increases my power. I did not expect her to be willing to take that risk."
"Why does using her power increase yours?"
"It was Sailor Pluto who sealed my powers within this dimension. However, the seal also restricts her own powers. In order to use her powers, she must break part of that seal, and she cannot restore it herself. Thus, every time we force her to use her powers, my power will grow."
Beryl idly rolled the crystal ball in her lap. "Then we must force her to use that power. We need another ally, Chronite."
"I quite agree, my Queen," said Chronite with a bow.
"Don't try to flatter me, Chronite. You are not currently in my favor."
"The fighters you have brought me so far are useless. Obviously, our coercion is not working. We cannot rely on warriors who fight for love. We need a warrior who will fight for the sake of fighting."
"That could be dangerous, my Queen," warned Chronite. "Remember that my power is limited in this dimension. In their own worlds, I have no difficulty controlling our recruits. However, in this dimension, I cannot stop them from fulfilling any evil desires that they may have, including defeating the two of us and conquering the Negaverse for themselves."
"Do you doubt my own power, Chronite?" asked Beryl.
Chronite bowed again. "Of course not, my Queen. You are undoubtedly the greatest power in this dimension. Therefore, I am sure that you are wise enough to realize that in the infinite dimensions to which I have access, there are powers even greater than yours. Any attempt to harness one of those could prove to be our - I mean, your undoing."
If Beryl heard the slip, she ignored it. "Of course I know that. However, there are certainly powers out there that we will be able to control."
Chronite nodded. "I already have one in mind, my Queen. A creature held in captivity for its entire life, not yearning for freedom only because it does not know what freedom is."
"Is it powerful enough to destroy the Sailor Scouts?"
"Its power should be more than adequate for our purposes, my Queen," replied Chronite.
"Will Sailor Pluto be able to interfere again?" asked Beryl. "Will she be able to eliminate this new fighter as she did Kusanagi?"
"I do not know, my Queen," said Chronite. "I do not know what power Pluto used to do that."
"I know what it was," replied a low voice from behind the throne. "She used it on me directly." Sailor Saturn stepped out from behind the throne, cloaked in shadow.
"What power did she use?" asked Chronite. "How did you survive?"
"I believe that will be all, Chronite," Beryl cut in. "You have your assignment."
"But, my Queen -"
"Are you questioning my orders, Chronite?"
Chronite stared levelly at Beryl. "No," he said coldly. After a pause, he grudgingly added, "my Queen." He vanished.
"You do not trust him?" asked Saturn.
"That is none of your business," snapped Beryl. "Now, tell me about Sailor Pluto's power."
"She has the power to banish our warriors to their dimensions of origin. They can never be returned to this dimension once her power has banished them."
Beryl frowned. "You said that she used this power on you directly?"
"I am immune to it, because this is my dimension of origin. She cannot banish me from it."
"But our other warriors are susceptible to it?"
"Only if they are weak enough at the time," replied Saturn. "The stronger the will of the target, the more difficult it is to separate them forcibly from this dimension."
Beryl nodded, deep in thought. "Is this power a threat to us?"
"We should probably treat it as a threat," replied Saturn. "The others must be warned."
"Very well. And you will need to take a much more active role in the battles from now on."
"That may not be wise, Queen Beryl. My body is weak, and in my weakened state, Pluto can banish me to the Negaverse until my power returns."
"Do not presume to tell me what is wise and what is not," said Beryl. Sailor Saturn's lip tightened briefly, but her shadowed appearance hid this from Beryl. She bowed slightly, then turned and walked away from the throne.
When the throne had vanished into the darkness behind Saturn, Chronite appeared in front of her. "Now, tell me everything you told Beryl."
Saturn smiled. "You're not so formal when she can't hear you, are you?"
Chronite raised his hand as if to smack her in the face. "Watch your mouth!" he snapped.
"Do you care to test my power?" asked Saturn. "Without your full power, I could destroy you in seconds."
Chronite's muscles tensed as he fought to control his rage. He took a deep breath and calmed down. "Sailor Saturn... Mistress 9... I must know what power Pluto has over me. That bitch Beryl has no right to withhold information from me."
"She doesn't trust you," Saturn pointed out. "I can't say that I blame her."
"Ha! That pigheaded idiot still believes that she has more power than me, even when I finally reclaim all of my power!"
"No wonder, when she's growing fat on your flattery."
"Exactly the point, my dear Mistress 9. No sense giving her the impression that I am a threat. Should she decide that I am dangerous, she might try to destroy me."
"Then, in fact, you are the one who is afraid of her?"
Chronite tensed up again. "Do not mock me! Just you wait! I will force Pluto to use her powers, and then I will be stronger than you and Beryl put together!"
Saturn grinned slyly. "That will be something to see."
Chronite again forced himself to calm down. "I have urgent business elsewhere. Are you going to tell me what I want to know or not?"
Saturn chuckled. "You're very amusing. I enjoy watching you grovel." She grunted, and waves of dark energy rose around her body, barely perceptible in the darkness of the Negaverse. Chronite took a step back in fear, but then stopped in his tracks and nodded knowingly.
"I see. This is the energy that Pluto used against you. I can feel it now." He closed his eyes and extended his senses, groping at the power around Saturn. "Yes, it is indeed a force to be reckoned with."
"What are you going to do about it?" asked Saturn.
"I'm going to do nothing, for the moment. Beryl won't order another attack until our people can root out another one of the Sailor Scouts' true identities, so I have time to think. I will secure our next ally in the meantime." He faded out of the Negaverse.
"What an idiot," said Saturn. "His confidence will be his downfall as much as Beryl's will be hers." She paused thoughtfully. "I just hope that I do not become overconfident as well."
Raye opened her eyes to find herself lying in her own bed at the Cherry Hill Shrine. Amy, Lita, and Mina surrounded the bed, staring down at her with concern all over their faces. "Guys! You're all right!" She tried to sit up, but a shooting pain in her side forced her back down.
"Oh, be careful!" Amy admonished her. "Kusanagi stabbed you in the side, and it still hasn't fully healed. You'll need to stay in bed for at least another day."
"Where's Serena? And Darien?"
"Serena's still sleeping, and Darien's watching her," replied Lita. "She blocked one of Lina's spells, and it took everything she had to do it."
"Meatball-head had the power to do that?" asked Raye.
"Barely," said Mina. "If Lina's power hadn't given out when it did, Sailor Moon probably would have lost it, and we'd all be dead."
Raye looked up at Mina and saw a sturdy brace covering her right forearm. "Mina... you saved my life, didn't you? And you took a nasty hit in the process..."
"I'm not counting," said Mina. "Besides, this brace that Amy made should allow me to use my arm normally until it heals. So in the end, there's really no harm done."
"I'm so sorry... I spent the whole battle bleeding to death, and you guys had to protect me."
"We're just glad you're alive!" said Lita. "We'll do anything it takes to protect a friend. No thanks or apologies necessary!"
Raye shook her head. "I'm only going to be a burden on you guys now."
"No you're not!" insisted Amy. "You're Sailor Mars, and you'll always be a valuable part of our team, no matter what state you're in!"
"This arrangement will work out well," said Lita. "I can't go back to my apartment anyway, and I can't go out in public, so I'll stay here to keep an eye on you until you've healed up."
"But... if there's a battle..."
"Don't argue," Amy commanded softly. "You need to rest. In another day or two, you should be able to fight with the rest of us. Until then, we'll just have to hold our own."
"I wouldn't worry so much," said Lita. "Artemis thinks he might know who our mystery allies are, so we should be able to trust them in the future."
"I can't make any guarantees," said Artemis from the foot of the bed, "but our allies might just be the Sailor Scouts of the Outer Planets."
"The who?" asked Raye.
"As far as we can remember," explained Luna, "in addition to yourselves, there were also Sailor Scouts that represented the planets Uranus and Neptune."
"They were the protectors of the Solar System from outside invasion in the days of the Moon Kingdom during the Silver Millennium," added Artemis. "Their powers were somewhat greater than yours."
"When you were sent into the future, they were sent even farther ahead, to be prepared for more powerful enemies that would attack much later than Queen Beryl."
"That's why they can't possibly be here at this time," concluded Artemis. "But if Lina wasn't lying when she mentioned other Sailor Scouts... that's the only thing I can think of."
"Could this be the time at which they were meant to arrive?" asked Amy.
Artemis shook his head. "I'm sure it's not for at least a century, long after your mortal lives are over. They will help to ease the transition of this world into the New Moon Kingdom of the Crystal Millennium during their own mortal lives, while you will exist only as Sailor Scouts."
Mina scowled. "You can remember all that, but you can't remember how we can increase our powers?"
"Getting angry at Artemis isn't going to help us," Lita reminded her.
"If only I could watch them use their attacks for myself," said Artemis. "Or even just see the attacks again, now that I know they might be Sailor Scout attacks. That might remind me."
"Don't worry about it, Artemis," said Amy. "I've been working on a way to get better use out of the powers we have."
"And what have you come up with?" asked Raye.
"So far, nothing." Everyone facefaulted. "I said I was working on it! I never said I had any results!"
Mina was the first to get back to her knees. "Why should we not be worried, when our best plan has no results yet?"
Amy blushed. "Well, I wouldn't say that everything hinges around my plan... we still have our natural skills and abilities."
"Our natural skills and abilities?" asked Mina skeptically.
"They've gotten us this far, at least."
Mina looked at the brace on her arm, then at Raye, and finally to the corner of the room where Darien was cradling Serena in his arms. "That's what worries me."
"Just relax," advised Raye. "We'll just have to deal with the next fight when it comes."
"You won't be dealing with anything for a while," Lita reminded her.
Raye groaned. "I won't even be able to pray at the sacred fire..."
"Your grandfather and Chad are both praying for your swift recovery," Amy informed her. "I wish there were something more we could do, but only time will heal your wound now."
"How's Serena doing?" asked Raye.
"She's just sleeping now," said Darien from the corner. "She'll probably wake up tomorrow morning, good as new. Maybe she'll even be up on time for once." He bent down and kissed Serena lightly on the cheek. She didn't stir.
"She's lucky to have someone like you to watch over her like that," said Lita.
"She's not lucky," countered Amy. "She's a princess, and Darien is her prince."
"Either way, I wish I had someone to watch over me like that," said Raye. She reflexively turned to the door, where Chad had just appeared. "No, Chad, I meant someone besides you."
Chad bowed his head. "I'm really sorry, Raye. I wish I'd been there when those muggers attacked you."
"Then you'd probably be dead by now," said Raye. "The Sailor Scouts were there to save me and my friends. That's all that matters."
"It's all because of those Sailor Scouts!" seethed Chad with a clenched fist. "They ruin all my opportunities to prove my love for you!"
"Chad, trust me. You don't need to be jealous of the Sailor Scouts."
"Then you do care about me!" Chad leapt into the air, then happily floated out of the room.
Everyone continued to stare long after Chad had left the room. "He's weird," said Mina at last.
"Well, don't worry, Raye," Lita assured her. "I'll be here until you're completely healed, and I won't let anything happen to you, even if I get another scar to match this one."
Raye smiled back, although she was beginning to feel somewhat woozy. "Thanks, Lita. You're a real... friend." She let her head fall back onto the pillow and fell asleep instantly.
"Good. She's getting some sleep," said Amy.
Mina yawned. "And we need to get some as well, now that we know she'll be all right."
"Yes, we need to get home quickly, before our parents worry too much about us," agreed Amy. She and Mina quickly said their good-byes to Lita and left the room, and Darien followed shortly after, carrying Serena.
"I sure hope you wake up in time, meatball-head," said Darien. "I don't want you to die if I can't protect you again." He kissed her one more time before leaving the building. This time, she squirmed slightly in his arms and smiled. Darien returned her smile and set off for the Tsukino residence.
Michelle eased her way into the motel room, careful to support Amarah as she hobbled in, leaning heavily on Michelle's shoulder. "Just a little further, Amarah."
Amarah lowered herself onto the bed with a pained groan. "I can't believe I lost both legs."
"They were really tough, Amarah," said Michelle. "I think we're lucky to have survived."
"We thought we were going to turn the tide of the battle," said Amarah. "But we can barely keep ourselves alive."
"The tide of the battle will change," said Trista as she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. "Sailor Saturn was the greatest threat. Now that she is gone, we should have little trouble dispatching the remaining opponents."
"That's a relief," said Amarah. "But I still don't understand why Sailor Saturn was attacking us in the first place."
"Yes, you seemed very nervous about something," said Michelle. "Something having to do with changing our pasts."
Trista sighed. "It's really a matter far above your concern. You're better off not worrying about it."
"You know that always makes me worry more," said Amarah. "I don't like feeling helpless. The thought that I can't do anything..." She clenched her fists and trailed off.
"I know. But this is truly a fight that you can do nothing about."
"Why don't you let us decide that for ourselves, Pluto?" asked Michelle. "Knowing the truth will be better than fearing the worst, and it will set our minds at ease."
"Are you sure? The truth could very well be far worse than anything you could imagine."
"I'll believe that when I hear it," said Amarah. "So start talking already."
Trista sighed again. "I will try to explain so that you can understand, but do not be discouraged if you cannot. These matters are not meant for mortals to comprehend.
"I suppose I must begin by defining my role as a Guardian of Time. You, as mortals, experience time as a flow of events. However, to a Guardian of Time, time is merely another dimension like space, easily traversed with some small degree of effort. Guardians of Time also experience a flow of events, but it exists beyond time. You might call it 'supertime.'
"At the beginning of supertime, there were one hundred forty-four Guardians of Time. Each was granted the power to control one aspect of existence. The aspects were paired, one representing 'yin,' and the other representing 'yang.' For example, the yin element of Love was paired with the yang element of Hatred. Mortals might try to classify these as 'good' and 'evil,' but both halves are needed for a complete universe. Only the highest aspect, Time itself, and the lowest aspect, Void, were not paired.
"We Guardians of Time existed for a single purpose: to bring about and control existence itself. We pooled our abilities to create an infinite collection of universes, each possessing all of our aspects in some form or another. However, we could not efficiently devote our efforts to every universe simultaneously, even having separated the Time of those universes from our supertime. So, we divided the universes among ourselves, giving an equal set to each Guardian."
"Equally dividing an infinite number of universes?" asked Michelle. "How is that -?"
"Do not concern yourself with the details," replied Trista. "In any case, as supertime progressed, each Guardian of Time would take a body that resembled a mortal form and live the course of time in each universe from the moment of its creation to the moment of its destruction. In this universe, my mortal identity is that of Sailor Pluto. However, as a Guardian of Time, my true title is Severer 4, Lord of Death."
"That sounds familiar, somehow," said Amarah.
"It should. You see, our plan worked smoothly for some period of supertime, but as all plans do, ours began to fall apart. Some of our number, those representing the 'yang' elements such as Silence, Chaos, War, Hatred, Nightmares - " She paused uneasily. " - and Death... began to lose control, becoming corrupted by the incredible power that they wielded. Their opposites began to weaken, and existence became unbalanced."
"You named yourself," said Michelle. "Does that mean that you, also, were corrupted?"
"Not entirely," replied Trista. "The other Lords of the yang elements gathered together to overthrow Father 1, the Lord of Time, and Mother 144, the Lord of Void. They had hoped to gain control of the entire Council, but the Council was too powerful for them. I avoided that conflict, knowing that their efforts were doomed. They were defeated, and their powers were sealed. Their universes were destroyed to avoid spreading the corruption, and they were banished from the Gate of Time for all of supertime.
"After that, I returned to the Council to swear my allegiance once again, and was granted my seat. However, the deposed Guardians have always sought to reclaim their power, and to control the Council itself completely. That is the conflict that Mistress 9 speaks of."
"Mistress 9!" shouted Amarah. "I understand now! She was the Guardian of Time who ruled Silence, wasn't she?"
Trista nodded. "Yes. She still swears her allegiance to Pharaoh 90, the Lord of Chaos, because she hopes to gain something from him when she has helped him regain his full power. He was once the most powerful Guardian of Time by far, save for Father 1 and Mother 144. His rise to power was so swift that his opposite number, Regius 55, the Lord of Order, died from the abrupt loss of his power. He was not the only casualty from the insurrection, but he was the first. Many have said that had he survived, the War of Time could never have occurred."
"Skip the politics," snapped Amarah. "What do Mistress 9 and Pharaoh 90 hope to accomplish by taking over this universe?"
"They seek to return to the Gate of Time in my stead at the end of this universe," replied Trista. "They would then regain their power, and could begin building up power in other universes and plotting to depose the Council once again. Already, Marius 78, the Lord of Nightmares, has begun to build her power in another one of my universes, forcing Helios 77 to take refuge in this one because of his weakness. They believe that they can convince me to join them again, and because I control Death, I would be able to destroy their opponents easily."
"But you won't do that, right?" asked Michelle.
"Rest assured, I want no part of their dirty plan. However, I may not have a choice. As I am unable to control the future at this moment, Mistress 9's plan may come to fruition."
"Okay," said Amarah. "So what IS the plan?"
"This is where it begins to get complicated," began Trista.
"You mean it wasn't complicated before?" asked Amarah. Michelle shushed her.
"Do you remember the tree analogy that I used before to describe oblique dimensions?" asked Trista. Amarah and Michelle nodded. "Well, every tree has a trunk. No matter how high up in the tree you go, the trunk is the thickest part. It gets thinner and thinner as you climb the tree, but it is always thicker than the surrounding branches."
"And there's an oblique dimension like that?" asked Amarah.
"Yes. There is one timeline in every universe that is far more likely than any other, because all choices have preferred outcomes. To use the example I used earlier, if Sailor Neptune's life were in danger, Sailor Uranus would be more likely to try to save her than to run away. That most likely timeline, the trunk of the tree, is known as the One True Timeline, and it is the only timeline that can be seen by an observer from outside that universe."
"It must be very significant in the grand scheme of things, then," said Michelle.
"Very much so. It is the timeline along which the Guardian of Time lives during his or her mortal existence, and thus it is the only connection between the universe and the Gate of Time."
"So Mistress 9 and Pharaoh 90 want to gain control of the One True Timeline?" asked Amarah.
"They cannot alter the events of the One True Timeline," replied Trista. "However, they can make certain choices more likely in the future, thus changing which timeline of those that already exist is the One True Timeline. It is possible, for example, to plant in Sailor Moon's head the idea that she cannot defeat Queen Beryl, by demoralizing her with defeats. Thus, the possibility that she defeats Queen Beryl anyway will exist, but it will be weaker. However, that cannot be Mistress 9's goal. I believe that she means to steer the probabilities in her favor. She wants a timeline where she defeats the Sailor Scouts in the future to become the One True Timeline."
"Is that possible?" asked Michelle. "Can she really change the One True Timeline?"
"Yes," said Trista. "The One True Timeline of other universes has been shifted, in cases where time travel was possible for mortals. A young man named Trunks managed to alter the probabilities of his universe, replacing the former One True Timeline with a much better one, although he could not completely destroy the possibility of his own dark future."
"What will happen if Mistress 9 succeeds?" asked Michelle.
"Then, in the One True Timeline, Sailor Saturn's power will destroy this universe."
Amarah nearly leapt to her feet in shock. "Destroy the universe? But if that happens in the One True Timeline... won't it destroy all timelines?"
"No," replied Trista. "Sailor Saturn's power is twofold. She is the Sailor Scout of Destruction, but she is also the Sailor Scout of Creation. Her power allows her to destroy the universe and replace it with anything she desires, although she herself is destroyed in the transition. If Mistress 9 uses that power, then she will create a new body for herself to use when Sailor Saturn is destroyed and will be the ruler of the new universe. Although she will not be able to destroy me without destroying herself as well, my power will be unable to prevent her from seizing the Council of Time along with Pharaoh 90."
"Is that really going to affect us?" asked Amarah. "If it's happening in another timeline, then we won't even notice it, will we?"
"Of course we will," replied Michelle. "Think about it. All of existence ruled by Chaos and Silence and Nightmares... if these forces take over, what will become of our world? Of all worlds?"
Amarah sighed. "I can't picture it. Pluto was right. That fight is way above us. We can't oppose that kind of power by ourselves."
Michelle nodded. "As much as we may feel like the defenders of this world, even we are dwarfed by the magnitude of the true conflicts that matter. But isn't that the way all people are? Insignificant in the big picture, but they try to live their own lives regardless of how little impact they may have."
"Many would lose hope if they knew the truth about their destinies," agreed Trista.
"What about us?" asked Michelle. "Don't we have a hopeful destiny?"
Trista's eyes lost their focus momentarily, as if she were focusing on an unpleasant memory. She shook her head to clear it. "Even in your case," she said carefully, "it is best not to know."
"Enough fortune-telling," said Amarah. "We know what we can't do anything about. So what CAN we do?"
"We must protect the Inner Scouts," said Trista. "We must defeat any remnants of Mistress 9's plan in order to prevent the One True Timeline from shifting."
"But I thought you couldn't see the future," said Michelle.
"I cannot," replied Trista. "I cannot see the results of my actions on the timeline. I am still aware of all timelines, but I do not know which one will become the One True Timeline."
"Then how will we know if what we're doing is right, or if we're just playing into Mistress 9's hands?" asked Amarah.
Trista paused. "We cannot," she said at last. "But protecting the Inner Scouts is our immediate goal in any case. That much I know, even without being able to see the consequences of my actions. The timelines do not branch again until the defeat of Queen Beryl. The Sailor Scouts must survive until then."
"Sailor Saturn seemed to think that the deaths of the Inner Scouts wouldn't cause a paradox," Michelle pointed out.
Trista shook her head slowly. "It may very well be true. But I can't understand how it could be possible. We know that the Sailor Scouts sacrificed their lives to combine their power with Sailor Moon's so that she could defeat Queen Beryl. They can't do that if they die before their time."
"There must be some angle that you're not considering," said Michelle.
"Or maybe Saturn was lying," Amarah offered. "She is our enemy, after all. Maybe she wants to trick us into being willing to sacrifice the Inner Scouts."
"However, if I can understand this, we might not have to devote all of our energy to protecting them," said Trista. "We may be able to concentrate harder on defeating our enemies instead."
"I still won't stand back and let the Inner Scouts die," said Michelle.
"I pray that it will not come to that," said Trista. "But if it does... we cannot let our feelings put the entire universe in jeopardy. We must do what we must do."
"She's got a point," conceded Amarah. "We might not like it, but we don't have a choice."
"Then we simply won't let it come to that," said Michelle.
"I hope we can afford to have that kind of optimism," said Amarah. "Ever since we got here, I've had the nagging feeling that we aren't in control of our destinies anymore. We're just being swept along in the flow of time, and we don't get to choose where we'll end up."
"It only means that we must work harder to steer ourselves toward a brighter future," said Trista.
"Then we'd better make the most of our time off," said Michelle. She sat down on the bed next to Amarah. "How are your legs feeling?"
"They're still a little numb," replied Amarah.
"Rubbing them a bit might help with that," Michelle suggested.
Trista abruptly stood up and cleared her throat. "I think I have important business to take care of at the Time Gate. I'll come back and get you when the next battle begins." She quickly left the room and closed the door behind her.
Amarah scowled at the door. "I wonder why she was in such a hurry..."
"Akane... don't worry. I'm going to get you out of there, no matter what it takes. I just... can't bring myself to kill the Sailor Scouts. It's not because they're girls - you know I can fight girls if I have to... but they're the good guys. They're trying to protect people, and here I am trying to kill them. How am I supposed to choose? What right do I have to say who lives and who dies?" Ranma looked up at Akane with tears in his eyes. "What would you do? Would you kill someone else to protect me?"
"She can't hear you," said Lina. Ranma spun around to face her. "Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you."
"I should have been paying attention," replied Ranma. "If I let you sneak up on me, anyone could have. That's a good way to die."
"No one's going to attack you here in the Negaverse," Lina reminded him. "It's okay to let down your guard a little. Open up to your emotions."
Ranma quickly turned back to the crystal, wiping his eyes with a hidden motion. "I wasn't emotional. Just came back here to look at her for a while. I'm only protecting her 'cause she can't protect herself. It's a martial artist's duty to protect the weak." He reflexively ducked and cringed from the anticipated violent tirade, but the crystallized Akane was in no condition to deliver it.
Lina sighed. "We both know that that's a lie. Why are you lying to yourself? If you'd just admit that you love her, killing the Sailor Scouts would be a lot easier."
Ranma shook his head. "No, it wouldn't. I know it's wrong, for any reason."
"But what about letting Akane die? Is that right? If it is, then why don't you just break that crystal right now?"
"I could never do that!" shouted Ranma.
Even though she had expected a reaction, Lina still took a step back in shock. She quickly regained her composure. "Then it looks like there's no right choice, is there?"
"Of course not," said Ranma. "So what am I supposed to do?"
"Easy," replied Lina. "When there's no right choice... you make the wrong choice."
Ranma turned back to Lina, expecting to see a smile on her face, but her expression was quite serious. "Was that supposed to be a joke?" he asked.
"No. I'm just stating the facts. There are times when you can't do 'the right thing' because it doesn't exist. Then you have to accept that there's no way to get out of your destiny and just take the best option that's open to you."
"That doesn't help me," said Ranma. "How am I supposed to weigh Akane's life against an entire world?" Lina shrugged sympathetically. "What about you? What would you do?"
"Me?" asked Lina. "You say that like I'm not in exactly the same situation as you."
Ranma smacked himself in the face. "Sorry. I forgot." He thought for a moment. "So, what are you going to do?"
"The same thing as you, I suppose. Think about it a little longer."
"Gee, that's helpful," said Ranma sarcastically.
"I can't make your choice for you," said Lina. "Well, I could always break Akane's crystal..."
"Don't even joke about that!" shouted Ranma.
"Who was joking?" asked Lina. "If you can't handle a decision like this, you're not going to get very far around here."
Ranma snorted. "Like you're one to talk. You've never had to choose between one person's life and an entire world."
"I have, actually," said Lina. "Many times."
Lina laughed half-heartedly. "I wish. No, I'm afraid I've faced the same decision you're facing now many times before, although it was my own fault every time."
"Well, what decision did you make?" asked Ranma.
Lina shrugged. "The only decision I could make, really. I suppose it's not quite the same as the decision you're trying to make now, since it was more a question of someone else's life against my soul. But I still have my soul."
"Who would force you to make a decision like that?" asked Ranma.
"Nobody," Lina admitted. "That's the worst part, really. Like I said, I brought it on myself. It's the trouble with being a precocious sorceress."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe we'd better sit down. It's not a very pleasant story." Ranma moved away from Akane's crystal and seated himself in front of Lina. "Have you paid attention to the words of the Dragon Slave?" she asked once they had both settled themselves comfortably.
"A little," he replied. "I don't remember them well enough to repeat them."
"'I pledge myself to conquer all the foes who stand against the power you bestow in my unworthy hand.' Remember that part?"
"Yeah, I remember that. What about it?"
"Think about the words, Ranma. It's a pledge. Every spell has one. Black magic is ruled by beings of darkness: monsters, demons, and worse. In order to use that power, I have to make a pact with those monsters." She paused and let her gaze drop to the ground. "Usually it's enough just to use the spell, but sometimes, if the sorcerer isn't powerful enough to resist, the monster takes control to satisfy its lust for power. It holds the sorcerer's soul hostage in exchange for some service."
Ranma's hand clutched at his chest as if protecting his heart. "You sell your soul for power?"
"There are schools that teach the dark arts, and they carefully monitor the use of black magic. They never let students advance until they're powerful enough to resist the monsters controlling the more powerful spells. I was in one for a few months, but I got bored moving at their slow pace and ran away to learn magic on my own. I was able to control myself for the most part, but sometimes, when I cast a new spell for the first time, the monsters would win out. And then I had no choice but to do what they said."
"How could you do that? How could you willingly try to use magic you couldn't control?"
"Haven't you ever tried to use power that was out of your grasp, but you knew that if you kept trying, you'd eventually get it? Even if it killed you, you wouldn't give up until you learned it?" Ranma didn't know if he could count the number of techniques he'd learned that way. He merely nodded. "I knew I had the potential to be one of the greatest sorcerers of all time. Even my teachers said as much. I just wasn't willing to wait that long. I thought I could handle learning on my own. And every time I lost control, I figured out what I had done wrong so I could prevent it from happening again."
"But something else went wrong each time. And you lost control again and again..."
"I did learn a lot faster than I would have at the school. The school prevented its students from making mistakes, so the lessons took a lot longer to learn. When I could experiment on my own, I learned quickly from my own mistakes and made great progress."
"That doesn't excuse anything," said Ranma. "You knew the risks involved."
"You know what I was feeling, Ranma. You felt it too, didn't you? You were willing to risk your life to learn some of those techniques, weren't you?"
"How did you know?" Ranma asked before he could stop himself. How could she twist his thoughts around like that when he tried to argue with her? Akane always resorted to violence, but Lina...
"I thought so. I've seen techniques like the ones you used in my own world, based purely on life energy rather than magic. I also saw what it took to learn them."
Ranma shrugged. "Fair enough. But still, it was my own life I was risking, not someone else's. And usually because I didn't have a choice."
"You must think I'm incredibly selfish," said Lina. "I guess I can't really make excuses. Black magic is the family trade. It's run in my blood ever since I was born, so I was destined to learn it eventually. I couldn't stop once I'd started, no matter what the cost. Black magic is a destructive force that takes over your body and tries to take over your mind as well, like a drug. The thrill of that power is incredible. Once you've touched it, it's almost impossible to live without it. I had to keep using it, or else it would tear me apart. So I taught myself, and became the most powerful sorceress in history."
Ranma wanted to argue, but Lina's words echoed his own life so perfectly that he couldn't. True, the price had been greater in her case, but her motivation was no different from his. "So, what did the monsters make you do?" he asked.
"Odd jobs," replied Lina. "Razing shrines to the ground, burning books of white magic. White magic is no threat to monsters, since it's only defensive and curative magic, but they don't want the lords of white magic to gain power or followers. So they had me destroy artifacts related to white magic."
"And people," added Ranma, filling in the words that she had left out. "They made you kill white sorcerers, didn't they?"
Lina nodded, tears forming in her eyes. "I didn't want to do it. But by the time they commanded me to, it was too late to back out. They had my soul. If they wanted to, they could take control of my body and use their power through me to do anything they wanted. They could totally possess me and make my body a shell for their spirits, eradicating my soul completely in the process. Or, if I was lucky, they'd just devour my soul for power and leave my lifeless, soulless body to rot in some dark corner of the globe." Lina shivered, and Ranma wrapped his arm around her shoulders protectively. Lina leaned against his chest, taking solace in the embrace. "I've never told anyone about this. Not even Gourry."
"That's okay," Ranma whispered. "You don't have to say any more."
Lina shook her head, rubbing her temple into Ranma's chest, but he ignored the pain. "I... I want to tell you. I've kept these memories to myself for so long... I thought I would forget if I just tried not to think about them. But I'll never forget... their eyes. It was always those eyes, that last pleading look before... before... I..." She broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. Ranma started to pull away from her, but she threw her arms around him and held herself to his chest. Ranma slowly let his free arm encircle Lina and held her close as the memories flooded through her, each drawing fresh sobs.
Ranma hadn't had a great deal of experience with comforting crying girls, but he had a feeling that it wouldn't have helped him here anyway. This was a special circumstance, and Lina was extremely vulnerable right now, open enough to surrender herself completely to him. He suddenly felt closer to her than he ever had to anyone, and wanted more than anything to delve into this closeness as deeply as he could. He wanted to make her feel better, to ease her pain and calm her troubled mind, still her body's trembling, warm her frozen flesh, prove to her that her mistakes could be forgiven, that she could be appreciated for her value as a person without being judged for her past... that she could be loved.
Ranma's hand instinctively crept down Lina's back and came to rest on her buttocks. Lina's breath caught in her throat at the contact. She slowly raised her head, letting her gaze take in Ranma's muscular chest and compassionate face before settling on his eyes. The reflection of a face haggard from crying but still youthfully bright stared back, but Lina concentrated instead on the emotions that she could read in his eyes. He found her attractive, she could tell, but he was concerned about her feelings rather than her looks, or her body... despite what his hand was doing.
Lina realized that she was staring, but she couldn't tear her gaze from Ranma's face. Ranma stared back, seemingly as surprised as she was, but clearly in control of himself as he searched her eyes for hints of her feelings. Her eyes, moist with tears, spoke volumes of emotion to Ranma; not indignation at his touch, nor anger, but not acceptance either. This was a look of trepidation, fear bordering on terror; but also excitement, and one other emotion that Ranma couldn't quite place. 'Are you sure you want to do this?' her eyes asked him. 'We can never truly be together. We would only be hurting each other, and ourselves. But if you truly want to have me... then I am yours.'
Ranma slowly closed his eyes, shutting out the outside emotions and letting his body take over. Despite his lack of sight, Ranma could feel Lina close her own eyes and lift her head, pursing her lips. He bent forward to meet her halfway, his mouth tingling in anticipation. Her warm lips pressed against his, and he felt the warmth fill his body like a charge of ki energy that made him stronger rather than weaker as it surged through him. His lips and hers began to move in a complicated dance that sent ripples of pleasure down both of their spines, arousing them both to no small degree. The small mounds of Lina's breasts pressed against Ranma's chest as she moved, and he could feel the tiny nipples hardening through their shirts. The sensation made him begin to wonder why he'd never done this with Akane, but it didn't cross his mind to feel guilty. In that wonderful moment, he didn't even consider how betrayed Akane might feel.
Betrayal. That was the hidden emotion in those last moments before the kiss, the one that Ranma hadn't recognized at first. 'How could you do this to me?' the image of Lina's eyes in Ranma's memory whispered softly. 'I gave my heart to you, trusted you to hold me. How could you take me this way; rape my body and my soul with your compassion?' But the kiss went on, and Ranma had no doubt of what Lina's true emotions were now. The crystals were forgotten, and for all he cared, Queen Beryl could shatter them. Lina rolled over onto her stomach, and Ranma felt her entire body lying on top of his as he lay down on his back, pulling her with him. He knew that she could feel the stiffness between his legs, and her tongue slowly parted his lips in response. But, somehow, they both knew that it would go no further than this. However much passion they felt, the kiss would end the tryst, and they would have to quell their quickly beating hearts and return to planning their next attack. Ranma forced his consciousness above the kiss and began to wonder what he could possibly say when the kiss ended, when the two of them managed to pull their lips apart and stared at each other across the inevitable awkward silence. Would he manage to preserve the mood while still forestalling the need to act further on their emotions, or would he dash her heart to pieces with ill-chosen words, destroying her fragile spirit beyond repair? Was there even anything that could be said? Perhaps they would simply stare in silence until she reached up to touch him on the lips with a finger, imploring him to speak no further of it, and then turned and walked away, leaving a hole in his heart where she had briefly filled the one that hadn't been there before...
"Ranma, tell me something," said Lina, snapping him out of his reverie. His hands had begun to stroke lightly up and down her back of their own accord, and her head still rested against his chest. He wondered if she suspected why his heart was beating so quickly. He gazed longingly across her back at her shapely, smooth rump, and for the briefest of moments, knew with certainty that the reality would match the fantasy... but it wouldn't be right. He realized that it was now he who was trembling, and he carefully cleared his mind before replying, glad that she couldn't feel his erection from her current position.
"What -" he squeaked. He cleared his throat and began again. "What do you want me to say?"
"Anything," she replied. "It's too quiet. The loneliness is frightening."
Ranma let his breath out slowly. Though she hadn't said it, it was obvious that she wanted him to say something to reassure her. Only one story came to mind, and he plunged ahead, not thinking about what effect it might have on her. "I used to know a kid, way back when I was young. Before I got cursed, even. My pops had just left my fiancÃ©e Ukyo behind and run off with her father's cart, and then sold it in the next town for a tidy profit. He was like that, my pops. Always doing whatever he could for a fistful of cash, which he'd blow on food all in one day, and if I wanted any, I'd have to fight him for it. But that's not really important.
"Anyway, like I said, Pops and I settled down for a while a few months after Ukyo in this little town way out in the middle of nowhere. All it had was a few shops where you could buy the basic necessities, and a little farm. Pops and I stayed at that farm, and in exchange, Pops and I offered to teach the farmer's son Gendo some of our martial arts techniques.
"The kid caught on quick, mostly because I was teaching him what Pops had taught me. He was already strong from spending his entire life doing chores on the farm, and he had incredible agility from riding the animals and other odd jobs. I think Pops even said at some point that he wished I'd been brought up as a farmer, because Gendo was so easy to teach. So like Pops to say something like that. He'd have done anything to me if he thought it would make me a better fighter. He even tossed me into a pit of starving cats every day wearing nothing but fish."
"Knowing that you were afraid of cats?" asked Lina.
"No, that's where I got my fear. Whenever I have to face that fear directly, I turn into a cat myself - until somebody triggers my Jusenkyo curse. On the plus side, I can use the legendary Cat Fist while I'm in that state."
"I noticed," replied Lina. "Anyway, you were telling me about your friend Gendo."
"Yeah. He and I sometimes practiced on our own, inventing our own exercises for when Pops and Gendo's dad went out drinking together. We both learned a lot from each other during that time. That's when I refined my sense of balance. He showed me how he walked across the fences between fields without falling off, and I kept trying until I could do it too. Pops never thought balance was as important as techniques when he taught me. I owe Gendo a lot of my skills."
"He sounds like a really great guy," remarked Lina. "But something bad happened, didn't it?"
"I probably shouldn't be telling you this," said Ranma. "It'll only upset you."
"Tell me only what you want to," said Lina. "I'd like to know what happened."
Ranma sighed. What was it Doctor Tofu had told him once about depression, during one of his more solemn moments? 'Men seek advice in hard times, but women seek empathy. Tell a man what to do, but tell a woman that you know how she feels.' Something like that. He smiled. He didn't have any advice he could give to Lina anyway; if he had, he would have used it himself. Empathy, on the other hand, he had in excess. "All right. I'll tell you what happened to Gendo."
A muscular young boy leaned against a wooden fence, gazing out across the grassy field where the horses grazed. "I'll never get tired of this view," he said to himself. He breathed in a lungful of warm farm air, paused for a moment to feel the sun beating on his slightly tanned skin, then ducked a kick from behind and swept his leg in an attempt to trip his assailant. His opponent countered with a downward kick, which he avoided by leaping onto the fence.
"You're getting good, Gendo," said his opponent admiringly.
"That was an obvious attack, Ranma," replied Gendo.
"Well, I didn't want to take the risk of hurting you," said Ranma.
"Don't you have any faith in my abilities?" asked Gendo, demonstrating by backflipping and landing back on the fence.
"Not as much as I have in mine," replied Ranma. "I've been training my whole life, and you only started eight months ago."
"That's what you think," said Gendo. "I've actually been training just as long as you have, although not in martial arts specifically."
"All that farm stuff doesn't count," said Ranma.
"Oh yeah? Want to play a game of Fence Tag to prove it?" challenged Gendo.
"You're on!" Ranma leapt up to the fence, but Gendo was already well out of arm's reach and still running across the horizontal beams of the fence, stepping over the vertical posts without missing a stride. Ranma gave chase, only slightly less sure-footed than the farmer as he followed Gendo.
Gendo turned to face Ranma, running backwards on the fence as easily as he did forwards - a skill that he'd learned from Ranma. "Hey, slowpoke! What's the matter? I thought you were a martial artist!"
"Watch your mouth!" shouted Ranma. As Gendo rounded a corner, Ranma leapt ahead of him, barely holding his landing on one of the fenceposts, and tagged him. "You're it!" He immediately ran away, leaping from post to post rather than trying his luck on the beams. Gendo followed suit, taking to the posts with practiced ease.
Ranma halted in his tracks and spun around, leaping at Gendo with his foot extended. Gendo grabbed Ranma's leg and swung him to the side, throwing him from the fence. Ranma grabbed the fence with his hands and flipped back onto the beam. Gendo casually tagged Ranma's ankle with his toe, throwing Ranma off balance and sending him tumbling headfirst from the fence. "That's the game," he announced. "Nice try, though. A few weeks ago, a move like that would've caught me."
"I just need to get used to landing on these narrow fences," said Ranma. "If my balance was a bit better, you never could have knocked me off the fence."
"Just count yourself lucky I didn't knock you into the mud on the other side," said Gendo.
"Whatever. I'm just glad Pops isn't here. He hates seeing you get the better of me. He'd probably make me carry the horses around the farm again or something as punishment."
Gendo nodded and wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Say... as long as our dads are out getting drunk, do you want to try out a new game?"
"Sure!" agreed Ranma. "What kind of game?"
Gendo smiled slyly. "Meet me in the barn in ten minutes, and I'll show you."
"The barn?" asked Ranma nervously.
"Don't worry. I'll get Frisky out of there before then." Gendo scratched his chin. "Actually, he can be pretty stubborn sometimes. Better make it twenty minutes. You might want to use the time to practice your fence-walking."
Ranma scratched his head as Gendo ran away across the fencetops. "Practice my fence-walking? What kind of game could he possibly have in mind?"
Twenty minutes later, Ranma stepped off of the fence near the barn. "Okay, I should be ready for anything Gendo can dish out now." He cautiously approached the barn. "F-Frisky? You in there?"
A bale of hay shifted to Ranma's left, causing him to scream. "Hey, relax," said Gendo as he emerged from the hay. "I told you, Frisky's in the house. You're perfectly safe."
Ranma breathed a sigh of relief. "All right. So what's this new game you've come up with?"
"Just follow me," said Gendo. He led Ranma into the barn and pointed to the ladder. "Up we go."
"Into the hayloft?" asked Ranma. "What's the point? There's nothing but hay up there."
"In the hayloft, sure. But what about ABOVE the hayloft?"
Ranma looked up. Just below the ceiling of the barn, a crisscrossing system of rafters could clearly be seen. "I get it. That's why you wanted me to practice my fence-walking skills. We're going to play Fence Tag on the rafters!"
"You got it!" Gendo began to climb the ladder.
"Are you sure that's safe?" asked Ranma. "It's pretty high up."
"We just have to change the rules a little. It's illegal to try to knock the other guy off."
"But what happens if one of us falls off accidentally?"
"Don't," replied Gendo. "I think you're good enough to manage yourself on top of the rafters."
"The fences are one thing," protested Ranma. "They're pretty low. If I fell from way up there, it would hurt!"
"I thought one of the first things you martial artists learned was how to fall," said Gendo.
"Falling is easy," replied Ranma. "That doesn't mean I want to do it!"
"Don't be such a baby," said Gendo. "This will be great practice! Just wait until your dad sees how agile you've become!"
"Can't he see how agile I am a bit closer to the ground?" asked Ranma.
Gendo leapt up, grabbed a beam, and flipped onto it. "Suit yourself," he said. "I'm getting some practice up here."
"Fine," said Ranma. "I'm coming up!" He leapt onto the wall of one of the stalls, then into the hayloft, and finally onto the rafters without a pause.
"See? Nothing to worry about! You've got enough balance by now that this should be a breeze."
"I just hope you don't get any breezes up here," said Ranma. "The wind might knock me off!"
"I don't see why you're so scared," said Gendo. "You have almost no trouble balancing on the fence any more, and these rafters are much wider." He paused. "You're not scared of heights, are you?"
"Heights aren't a problem," replied Ranma. "It's falling from them that scares me."
"You're not going to fall!" Gendo assured him, leaping to another beam. "Just try to forget how high up we are."
"Thanks for reminding me," muttered Ranma. He walked along the beam he was standing on until it ended at a ceiling support, then stepped across the gap to the perpendicular beam. "Hey, this isn't so bad." He leapt to the rafter that Gendo was on. "All right! Let's play Rafter Tag!"
Gendo reached for Ranma, but Ranma leapt out of reach. "This should be a bit more exciting than Fence Tag," he said as he chased Ranma around the rafters. "It's a smaller space, but the rafters are much closer together, so there's a lot more freedom of movement."
Ranma slightly overshot a landing, ending up with his feet halfway off the beam, and windmilled his arms in an attempt to regain his balance. Gendo quickly landed next to him and grabbed his shoulder, righting him. "Thanks!" said Ranma. "You saved my life!"
"Don't thank me yet," said Gendo. "You're it!" He leapt away, and Ranma chased him without pause. They continued that way for hours, as Ranma quickly overcame his fear and began to aggressively pursue Gendo across the rafters. The pace of their game quickened as they gained in skill and tried more and more daring maneuvers.
Finally, Gendo stopped and leaned against a vertical support to catch his breath. "That's enough for me," he panted. "Let's call it a day."
"Look out!" shouted Ranma. Having failed to anticipate Gendo's halt, he had taken one leap too many and was now on a crash course with Gendo. The farmer failed to dodge in time, and Ranma barreled into him, knocking him off the beam. He clutched at a nearby beam as he fell, but his sweaty fingers lost their grip, and he plummeted headfirst to the packed dirt floor below.
"GENDO!" shouted Ranma. He leapt down to the floor and knelt beside his friend. Gendo's neck was bent at an angle that Ranma was sure human necks weren't supposed to reach, and his breathing came in spurts. Ranma slowly reached out, afraid to touch Gendo for fear of worsening the injury.
Gendo opened his eyes and turned his head slightly to look up at Ranma. "I can't feel my legs," he said. "Or my arms... I can't really feel much of anything, except a lot of pain."
"Don't move," said Ranma. "You'll be okay. I'll go get our dads -"
"No use," interrupted Gendo. "By the time they get here, it'll be too late. Besides, there's nothing to do. I'm like an old horse with a broken leg. Best to just take it out into the pasture and..." He screwed up his eyes in pain and winced. When the wave of pain had passed, he opened his eyes again. "It's ironic, isn't it?"
"What is?" asked Ranma.
"You were afraid of getting hurt playing on the rafters, but I wanted to. And look at which one of us broke his neck." His laugh was broken by a series of hacking coughs.
"Don't try to talk!" urged Ranma. "Just hold on a little longer! Don't die!"
"We can't choose when we're going to die," said Gendo. "When it's time to go..." His eyes glazed over. "Ranma... Sorry about this. I shouldn't have... tried..."
"It's my fault," said Ranma. "I wasn't looking where I was going." He held Gendo's hand. "You can't die. You can't die when it's my fault. I'll kill you if you do." Their traditional joke somehow lost a bit of its humor under the circumstances, but Ranma still couldn't help cracking a smile. "That sounds stupid, doesn't it?" Gendo didn't reply. "Gendo? Gendo?! Wake up! Come on! Wake up!" He shook Gendo by the shoulders. Gendo's head flopped like a fish in response, and Ranma quickly dropped him and backed away toward the door. "G-G-Gendo..."
A shadow filled the barn door. "Ranma boy? Gendo? Are you in here?"
For once, Ranma was glad to hear his father's voice. "Pops! Something happened to Gendo! He's hurt!"
"Quit shouting, boy," said Genma and he staggered into the barn. "Gendo, what have I told you about pain? You've got to work through it, or you'll turn into a wimp! Is that what you want?" He grabbed Gendo's arm and hauled the boy to his feet. "Come on, walk it off!" Genma froze and pressed his fingers to Gendo's wrist. Sobriety instantly took hold of him, and his face paled. "By the gods... if the father finds out about this..."
"Pops? What are you -"
"Come on, boy!" shouted Genma, dropping Gendo's arm and grabbing Ranma's instead. "We're leaving!" He ran from the barn and fled the farm, dragging Ranma along.
"But we left Gendo behind!"
"Just forget about him, boy! We don't need a slacker like him weighing us down. It's the life of a martial artist to keep moving and never get tied down to one place, remember?"
Ranma nodded as he ran alongside his father, not even pausing as Gendo's father's scream pierced the air from behind them.
"And we never returned to that farm again," concluded Ranma. "I suppose in retrospect it should have been obvious why, but back then, I still believed that Gendo would be okay. I mean, Pops had already run away from Ukyo and her dad, and Ukyo had been fine. I thought maybe it was just part of my training or something. After a while, nothing Pops does surprises you anymore, you know?" Lina didn't respond. She was shivering against Ranma's chest. "Lina? You okay?"
Lina remained silent, as she continued to stare into the darkness at the memory that Ranma's story had dredged up from her own past. A young white priestess, no more than seven years old, lying across the altar in the shrine that her father had left her in charge of while he went into town to shop, her hand clutching the bleeding wound in her chest where Lina's Flare Arrow had just missed her heart, staring up at Lina and wordlessly begging for an end to the pain. The darkness had fled from Lina's soul, believing the job finished, but the girl was still alive. The wound, however, was beyond Lina's power to heal, and the girl's father would be too late in returning to save her. Lina tried to tear her eyes away, but the girl's suffering was hypnotic, and Lina could only watch in horror as the destruction that she had caused ran its course. The eyes... the dying stare, as life slowly faded from the body... the ultimate helpless despair... She forced her hand up and aimed it at the girl. "FIREBALL!" she shouted, and the magic gathered in her hand. The priestess mouthed a silent word of gratitude as the flames consumed her and burnt her body to ashes. Only when the last tongue of flame had extinguished itself could Lina finally turn away and leave the shrine, resolving never to cast the failed spell again until she was sure she could control it...
"Lina?" Ranma's voice snapped Lina back to the present. She blinked away the image and squeezed Ranma tightly.
"Ranma..." she whispered. "I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention. I was thinking about all the suffering I've caused. Believe me, you have nothing to be ashamed of."
"I killed Gendo," said Ranma. "That's not nothing."
"It was an accident," said Lina. "You didn't do it on purpose."
"I thought you weren't paying attention," Ranma reminded her.
"You'd be amazed at what you can hear when you're not paying attention. Believe me, I know the whole story from personal experience. I've watched plenty of people die by my own hand, in cold blood. The only difference is that I could finish them off quickly. You had to watch while your friend died." She shuddered. "I don't envy you at all."
Ranma began to stroke the top of Lina's head compassionately. "We're murderers, aren't we?"
"Don't look at it that way, Ranma. We had a few accidents. That's all."
"It's not going to be an accident this time," said Ranma. "We're either going to kill the Sailor Scouts, or Akane and..."
"Gourry," supplied Lina.
"... are going to die." Ranma let his words hang in the air, as much for his own benefit as for hers, then sighed. "We're right back to where we started."
Lina chuckled. "That we are. But we know a lot more about each other."
"More than we ever wanted to know," said Ranma.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked.
"I may never see Akane alive again..." began Ranma.
"Don't say that," Lina put in reassuringly.
"I may never see her again," repeated Ranma. "Even if we do go through with killing the Sailor Scouts, there's no guarantee. Queen Beryl's the type who would probably kill her hostages anyway, once the job's done. And if she does kill Akane and Gourry, then we'll be left alone. Together. And..."
"What? What is it?"
Ranma lifted Lina's head until she was staring into his eyes. "I never thought I would meet anyone who understands me the way you do. Even Akane... sometimes I can't tell if she's trying to be nice or not, but something always seems to be pushing us apart. And she yells at me for everything that isn't my fault. She makes me feel so rotten, and sometimes I even start agreeing with her and blaming myself."
Lina put her hands on Ranma's chest and pushed herself away from him. "I think I know what this is building up to..."
"I want us to be friends," said Ranma. "I never had many of those, just a bunch of enemies and fiancÃ©es... and some people were both. Every time I think I've found a friend, Pops engages me to her or I accidentally offend her and she decides to try to kill me or something. But Pops isn't here, and I don't think I've offended you yet. I just... I've never felt this way about anyone before. I've never felt so close to anyone. We only just met, and here we are exchanging our life stories... I don't want this friendship to go bad the way all the others did."
Lina was stunned. "You've given this a lot of thought, haven't you?"
Ranma shook his head. "I've thought of you as a friend since this afternoon. But just now... I think I might be falling in love with you."
Lina leapt to her feet. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but no words came out. Instead, she felt warmth rising within her as a blush came to her face. That quickly gave way to the burning heat of anger, and she slapped Ranma in the face. "You pervert!" she shouted. "How dare you touch me like that!" She turned to storm angrily away - and bumped right into Queen Beryl on her first step, knocking the Negaqueen flat on her back. "Oh, god! Queen Beryl! I'm so sorry..."
"Silence!" shouted the fallen queen. She pushed away the helping hand that Lina offered and struggled to her feet, trying to regain her composure. Once she had calmed down a bit, Beryl continued in her favorite tone, the one that was calm but carried a venomous edge. "Your progress at killing the Sailor Scouts has failed to impress me."
"They had help!" protested Lina. "There are more of them than we thought, and the new ones have a lot more power."
"I am aware of that," said Beryl. "It is not you I am angry with." She calmly walked toward the crystal that held Akane.
"What are you doing?" demanded Ranma.
Queen Beryl stopped right beside the crystal and turned. "Ranma Saotome... you had the chance to kill Sailor Jupiter, and you failed. You gave her the chance to fight back when you could have crushed her easily. Apparently, your sense of honor means more to you than my orders." She turned her head to peer into the crystal. "Then what about her? Does this girl mean more to you than your foolish honor?"
Ranma, already on the verge of tears from Lina's slap, leapt to his feet. "Queen Beryl, I'm trying as hard as I can! But I can't kill a defenseless girl, no matter what! Not even to save Akane's life." He unconsciously clenched his fists. "I just can't!"
"Pity," said Beryl. "At least there are other girls I can threaten. You have quite a few girlfriends, don't you? Perhaps you'd be willing to fight for one of them."
"You wouldn't dare!" shouted Ranma. "Leave the rest of my fiancÃ©es out of this!"
"I'll do whatever it takes to secure your loyalty," said Beryl. "And if this one is useless to me... then I'll get rid of her." She stretched her arm out toward the crystal.
With a shout of "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Ranma leapt forward, reaching for Beryl's arm. Seconds passed like hours as physics took over Ranma's race to stop Beryl before she could touch the crystal. Every tiny movement caught Ranma's eye: Lina's face contorting in disbelief, Beryl's grin slowly displaying traces of shock. He could hear his own heartbeat, the only sound in the entire Negaverse as all three held their breaths in anticipation. The cold chilled him to the bone as he watched her hand draw ever nearer to the crystal's surface even as he grabbed her bony wrist, pulling her hand away as he slammed into her with full force. Now the silence was broken, for an instant, by the tiny "clink" of Beryl's long, twisted fingernail tapping the crystal as she fell to the ground for the second time. Then, silence again.
Ranma pushed himself away from Beryl in midair and landed on his back, not taking his eyes off the crystal for fear that it would shatter in the instant when he wasn't looking. Time was moving no more quickly now than it had during his leap. The moments passed, and the crystal showed no change. Finally, Ranma let out a sigh of relief.
CRACK! With a sound like splintering glass, a tiny crack appeared in the surface of the crystal where Beryl's fingernail had touched the fragile surface. Seconds later, the crack grew and split, forking outward. After another pause, each branch extended and split again, sending tiny tendril-like faults in all directions. The cracks grew toward one another, slowly forming a spiderweb of broken crystal that continued to expand as Ranma watched.
Beryl watched as well as she got to her feet. "You're quite fast," she said to Ranma. "But not fast enough. Perhaps this will give you some incentive. The crystal will take a few days to shatter completely. If you can kill even one of the Sailor Scouts by that time, I will transfer her into a new crystal. If not..." She left it at that and walked away.
Lina felt sick to her stomach as she watched Ranma fall to his knees before the decaying crystal, crying softly to himself. She stepped forward, seeking to comfort Ranma; then stopped, remembering what her last words to him had been before Beryl had appeared. Anything she did now would only make matters worse. He needed some time alone. He was no closer to making the difficult decision between Akane's life and those of the Sailor Scouts, but now his time was limited. Lina remembered the time that she had had to choose between Gourry's life and the rest of the universe, and the decision that she had made when her time had run out. It hadn't worked out as well as she'd hoped. "Ranma..." she whispered, so quietly that if Ranma heard it, he would probably think it was his own thoughts. "Don't let it get to you. Just do what you have to do." Ranma gave no indication that he'd heard her.
Lina watched him for just a little bit longer before she turned away and left him alone with the crystal. Even now, long after the excitement had ended, her heart was racing in her chest. Why? She had nothing to fear. After all, Beryl hadn't been angry at her. Perhaps she was afraid that, if she failed again, it would be Gourry's crystal slowly fragmenting - again - and nothing as simple as sacrificing her soul would save him this time. No. That couldn't be it. The heaviness in Lina's heart was sorrow - sorrow for Ranma, for the choice that he had to make, for the love that he felt toward...
Lina gasped in shock. She had been about to fill in her own name, not Akane's. It was Ranma's feelings toward her that quickened Lina's pulse and threatened to draw her back to where he was crying to apologize, to hold him in his hour of need, to do whatever she could to make everything right... No! She couldn't do that, not now! She had hurt him enough for one day already. Those wounds would have to heal on their own.
But she wanted him near her, wanted to soothe his broken heart as he had soothed hers, to draw out his emotions as he had drawn hers out and help him overcome the barriers that separated him from himself, to do everything for him that he had done for her... The feelings were unmistakable. Whatever he felt toward her, she felt equally strongly toward him; there could be no denying it any longer. And yet she still loved Gourry with all of her heart, and judging by Ranma's despair, he still loved Akane. But Ranma's words had touched her heart, and she recalled them with a shudder. 'If she does kill Akane and Gourry, then we'll be left alone. Together.' He hadn't finished that thought, but she knew what he had been driving at. The thought raised a horrifying question, one that would probably keep Lina up all night worrying about it. Which love was real? Which one should she act on? In short, how would she make the decision that Ranma was now trying to make for himself - the decision that she, too, would soon have to make - between her love and the fate of a universe?
A figure appeared beyond the bars of its cage. It looked up, seeing the visitor through heavy-lidded eyes as well as the artificial screen of the helmet its "master" had given it. Something seemed wrong about the red-haired human with the bright red clothing and an ageless look about his face. Or rather, with everything else around him. The other caged ones did not move, some hanging in midair in defiance of what humans referred to as "gravity" - or perhaps merely in defiance of time. Yes, that was it. Its powerful senses told it that time had stopped, and that itself and this human - was he truly even human? - were the only beings immune to the effect.
"Come with me," said the human. "I will free you and give you a true test of your power." At last! A worthy opponent to fight. No, it was not this human, although he too would likely make a worthy opponent. Young human girls, with elemental powers like those of its usual opponents. What joy! All its existence, it had wanted to prove itself superior not only to its own kind - although it was loathsome to think of those human-tamed abominations as "its kind" - but to humans as well. Now, at last, it could battle the strongest of humans and be free of its captivity at the same time!
It nodded, causing the wires secured to its head to tense and flex with its movement. "Yes. Let us go. I will destroy the Sailor Scouts for you..." Somehow, as much as it loathed the word, it seemed appropriate for the human who would give it a new life. "... master." It smiled. Yes, this one was its master now, a master who would provide it all it desired. No more weak opponents, no more rules, no more restrictions. This would be the greatest battle of its life.