More revelations about the nature of the battle unfold as Ranma, Lina, and Ryoko learn more about each other.
Chapter 16: The Truths They Didn't Know
The portal opened in an empty corner of the hotel room, and Sailor Uranus stepped through it, plopping immediately onto the bed. Sailor Neptune followed shortly, walking around the bed to sit in one of the small chairs. Sailor Pluto was the last to emerge, sealing the portal behind herself. Once the whirling portal had snapped shut, she sighed heavily and let her head hang.
"Is something wrong, Sailor Pluto?" Neptune asked with some concern.
"Everything is turning out completely wrong," Pluto replied glumly. "The enemies we face are becoming more and more powerful, and I can only assume that it heralds further increases in Chronite's power. Every time I act, he gains strength. Soon, he will be able to tap into the most powerful worlds and gain allies far beyond even my strength. That is, if he is not already that powerful."
"Then, are you going to stop using your power altogether?" asked Neptune.
"You're not leaving us on our own," Uranus insisted. "We can't win this without you."
"I will continue to use my power as I must," Pluto agreed. "But it can only be as a last resort, in defense of the universe against the possibility of a paradox. Anything else is a waste."
Uranus snorted. "Anyway, speaking of paradoxes, I believe you had an explanation for us? Like, why there wasn't one when the Inner Scouts saw us?"
Pluto sighed again. "Please, try to be patient. This is very difficult for me. The things I am about to tell you have never been known in this universe... and in the universes where they have been discovered, the effects have been... unpredictable. In addition, there is no guarantee that this story will answer your question. These matters are beyond even my knowledge."
"I thought the Guardian of Time was supposed to know everything about the way the Universe works," said Uranus.
"Just because the Guardians of Time created the universes, it doesn't mean that we know everything about them," replied Pluto. "Given the right components, you could build a computer, but that doesn't mean that you know how each transistor functions in the complete system."
Neptune nodded. "The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and can exhibit properties that are not inherent in any single piece."
Uranus waved a hand over her head. "Right, right. Just forget I asked."
Pluto nodded. "Yes, we must stay focused. Now, do you remember everything I've told you so far about the nature of timelines and universes?"
"Universes and timelines are like trees and branches," recapped Uranus. "The branches grow as people make decisions, and the trunk is the most important timeline because it connects to the Council of Time at the end. The roots are the rules that cause a paradox if they're broken. Did I leave anything out?"
"I think that covers everything important," said Pluto. "Now, for what I hope will be our final lesson, you'll need to put the tree metaphor aside and consider a different one."
"Great," Uranus groaned. "More complications."
"This shouldn't be as complicated as you expect," countered Pluto. "Simply consider the fact that each actor in the universe only perceives a single timeline. So, there is no contradiction in fixing a particular timeline and considering only one sequence of events as the entirety of a universe. And, for the sake of simplicity, let's assume that we choose the One True Timeline."
"That's not complicated?" asked Uranus, scratching her head in confusion.
"In other words, we're disregarding the results of choices and pretending that only one timeline exists in the universe," Neptune clarified.
"Exactly," agreed Pluto. "Now, pretend that we have a book that describes that entire timeline from beginning to end. To the actors within the universe, time flows normally, and they experience lives from birth to death, in which they see remnants of a past that existed before they were born, and their influence may live on long after their deaths. Yet a reader - the metaphorical equivalent of a being that exists in supertime - can turn to any page at any time, and experience all that the universe has to offer without regard to the time within that universe. For the reader, the book's time is irrelevant, but to those living within the book, the same events take place in the same order no matter whether the reader reads straight through from cover to cover, or backwards, or chooses a page at random and ignores all that comes before and after."
"It's not quite the same for you, though, is it?" asked Neptune. "You can travel freely through time as you said, but you can interact with the people in the universe."
"I can indeed," agreed Pluto. "But as I, too, am a character in the book, that interaction has already been written. To do more or less within the scope of the book would cause a paradox."
"Scope of the book?" inquired Uranus.
"It would be impossible for every aspect of the universe to be contained in the book," Pluto explained. "No one, even an immortal, would be capable of taking in the entire story in that form. The book must focus on a small number of actors at any time. The remainder of the universe continues to change with time, but the outside observer is only watching a small portion of it."
"I think I see where this is going," said Neptune. "If something happens to change the portions of the universe that aren't in the book, then there wouldn't be a paradox."
"As long as the changes don't affect the book, even peripherally, that would be correct."
"Let me guess," put in Uranus, "the people in the book are the only ones who can create timelines, right?"
Pluto shook her head. "No, timelines can form anywhere in space and time. But each newly created timeline would have its own book, identical to the original until the moment of divergence. After that point, there's no guarantee that the books would even be recognizable as derivations of the same universe."
"But they all have the same roots, right?" asked Neptune.
"Now you're mixing metaphors," noted Uranus.
"But accurately," stated Pluto. "The roots are the only thing guaranteed to hold true in every timeline within a universe. And even then, variations are possible, if the timeline is sufficiently removed from the One True Timeline."
"Something seems incongruous about bending the fundamental rules of the Universe," said Neptune.
"Then you won't bend them," replied Pluto, with just a hint of a smile. "There are some to whom such restrictions mean nothing. Chronite is one of those."
"So he can bend the rules without creating a paradox?" asked Uranus.
"To an extent," agreed Pluto. "But that alone does not explain what has happened during the battle against Mewtwo. We have seen the Sailor Scouts gain knowledge that we know them not to possess in the future, including a powerful technique that they should not be able to use."
"Which was the original question," Uranus reminded her. "So we're back to the beginning."
"But consider the book metaphor more literally," continued Pluto. "In addition to only covering a certain group of characters, a book also can only contain a tiny portion of the time within a universe. The books that you find on bookshelves describe only a short period: days, weeks, or even years. The universes described within the books span an eternity, but the book opens to only a limited fraction of that. The characters have lives that often begin before the start of the book, and continue after the book ends. As a reader, you cannot experience that portion of the characters' lives, but that doesn't make it any less real."
"But that's just a book," said Uranus. "It's not real at all."
"She's talking about the metaphorical book that describes THIS universe," Neptune reminded her.
Pluto nodded. "Yes. But there is one more aspect of a book that affects the continuity of events within it... chaptering. The book is divided into chapters, and between the chapters, any amount of time can pass. Just like before and after the book, the time between chapters is hidden from the reader. It is generally assumed that nothing significant happens during that time. However, it is quite possible that anything can take place in those periods, as long as it does not affect the parts of the book that are written."
"So you can change the events in the timeline after the book is written without changing the book itself," Neptune speculated.
"In most cases, those changes will simply create a new timeline," added Pluto. "However, when a new timeline cannot be created, those changes will be contained within the timeline that is being changed. And if that timeline is the One True Timeline of that universe... then a way must be found to merge the changes into the already established course of the timeline, or a paradox will result."
Realization dawned in Uranus' eyes. "I think I get it now! The One True Timeline is the only timeline where paradoxes can happen!"
"More or less," agreed Pluto. "There are other timelines which are destined to merge with the One True Timeline at a later point, and they too can give rise to paradoxes. But they are subject to a slightly different set of rules."
"And we're in one of those timelines, then?" asked Neptune. "One that takes place between chapters in the One True Timeline?"
"And all we have to do to prevent a paradox is restore everything to normal before we rejoin the real timeline, right?" added Uranus.
Pluto smiled. "That's correct. I told you it wasn't as complicated as you thought."
"Then there hasn't been a paradox because there is still a way to restore the proper course of events?" asked Neptune.
Uranus shook her head. "Still, I don't see anything we can do short of erasing their memories...." She smacked her forehead and groaned. "Idiot! Of course their memories are going to be erased! After they died fighting Beryl, they awoke with no memory of anything that had happened! That will include meeting us and learning the combined tiara attack, won't it?"
Pluto nodded. "I'm ashamed to say that I didn't even consider that when I warned you against being seen. It appears that quite a bit of what I thought would cause a paradox is actually relatively safe. But we are still playing with the fabric of time, and we still do not know how far we can stretch it. Any action that cannot be set right will cause a paradox."
"Man, it hurts to think about it," said Uranus. "Picturing our entire lives as a book.... Say, who reads this book, anyway? You?"
Pluto laughed. "No, I, too, am a character like yourselves. The readers are a higher power than even the Guardians of Time."
Neptune gasped. "I thought it was just a metaphor!"
"Yeah, I was just kidding!" Uranus put in.
"As was I," Pluto replied dismissively. "Don't concern yourselves too much with it. As long as you understand what's happening, there is no need to dwell on the details of the fundamental nature of the Universe."
Neptune stood up. "Well, then we should probably be going. The Inner Scouts are waiting for us."
Uranus grabbed Neptune's wrist as she walked past the bed. "Nah, it's too early. They've had a tough day. Let's give them a break for now."
"And what do you propose we do in the meantime?" asked Neptune.
Uranus tugged on her arm, pulling her down onto the bed. "Let's give those 'readers' something entertaining to watch."
"What do you mean?" asked Neptune, just before Uranus silenced her with a kiss.
"You know I always like a little action after a tough battle," Uranus whispered into Neptune's ear, which she then proceeded to nibble on lightly.
"I don't think... this is the time... oh!" Neptune gave up her protests and gave in to her instincts, moving her hands down to Uranus' skirt and thrusting them under the fabric.
"Hey, you're moving pretty fast for someone who doesn't want to," Uranus teased, sliding her lips down to Neptune's neck and -
Pluto turns to you with a disapproving stare. "I bet you're enjoying this, aren't you? But this scene isn't for your eyes. Go occupy a different viewpoint until they're done." She points her staff at you and chants under her breath, drawing a dismal light from deep within its ornament, which swirls before your eyes and expands until it is all you can see, resolving into the image of a small two-story house. A green figure steps into the picture, and the next scene begins.
There wasn't anything particularly special about the house, but it was the first one he'd seen in the wilderness where he'd landed after traveling to the past, and the light in one of the lower windows suggested an inhabitant. That, at least, was a good place to start. He strode casually up the walk as if to his own front door and entered the unlocked building.
The furnishings were rather frilly for the most part, but oddly enough, the place smelled slightly of gunpowder. At least one crude, ancient firearm hung on each wall, and every one had been polished until it gleamed. There was not a speck of dust to be seen anywhere, including on the feather duster sitting on the fireplace mantle. A fastidious woman clearly lived here, as well as someone who loved collecting weapons. It would have seemed an odd combination had he any knowledge of human society and culture, but that was one part of his programming that was severely lacking.
A low hum caught his ear, drawing his attention to a room near the back of the house, where the woman was apparently performing some task that contented her. Cleaning, most likely, he thought as he moved stealthily in that direction. But as he entered the occupied room, which turned out to be the dining room, he discovered that he was mistaken. The dark-haired woman was sitting at the table, which bore a small bowl of tomato soup and a portion of roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and a side of green beans, as well as the mandatory salt and pepper shakers and a silver candlestick.
The humming stopped as he passed through the doorway, and the woman gasped at the sight of him. "What are you?" she asked, frozen in fear.
He smiled. "My name is Cell," he introduced himself. "I have come here from the future to search for my missing components."
"M-missing components?" she repeated, still in shock at his appearance.
Cell nodded and threw two photographs onto the table, depicting what appeared to be a teenaged boy with a mop of jet-black hair, and his blonde twin sister. "These two are androids who may appear human at first glance, but in truth, they are the key to reaching my full power. I must find them as soon as possible."
The woman slowly shook her head. "I've never seen them before in my life!"
"Pity," said Cell. "Then I'll simply have to kill you."
The woman screamed and fell off her chair, pulling the tablecloth with her as she went. Her dinner spilled everywhere, covering her with tomato soup and gravy. "Please don't kill me!" she pleaded. "I don't know anything! I really don't!"
"I know," agreed Cell. "That's why you're useless to me alive. But dead...." He edged around the overturned table and raised his tail, preparing to strike. However, far from cowering in fear, the woman was reaching determinedly for the pepper shaker. Curious, Cell stood still and watched as she grabbed it and turned it toward herself, spraying her face with pepper. She inhaled deeply several times, the last cut short by a violent sneeze, so powerful that it turned her hair a bright yellow.
She was on her feet in an instant, her eyes ablaze with newfound defiance. "All right, ugly! I don't know who you are or what you want, but you're in MY house, and I want you out NOW!"
Cell chuckled. Whatever change had taken place in his victim would make this exchange a bit more interesting. "I'll be on my way in a few moments," he informed her, "right after I kill you."
The woman's hands darted out of sight and returned carrying an Uzi. "You asked for it!" she shouted, pulling the trigger without even bothering to take aim. Thousands of bullets flew from the weapon, bouncing harmlessly off Cell's thick green skin.
Cell made a show of yawning pretentiously. "I hope you've got something a bit bigger tucked away somewhere," he said. "Otherwise, killing you won't be very much fun. I prefer it when people try to fight back."
She threw the gun away in disgust. "Fine, then! Take THIS!" From the same hidden place, she extracted a bazooka, raised it to her shoulder, and fired a missile in the same motion. Cell felt the impact in his gut as he flew backwards, smashing into the china cabinet and destroying it along with all of its contents.
The woman smirked in satisfaction. "That's what you get for messing with Launch," she informed the deceased intruder.
The intruder, however, proved himself to be not quite as deceased as she thought by sitting up and groaning. "What was that? Mere human weapons shouldn't have any effect on me!"
Launch stared through the hole in Cell's stomach at the wreckage of her other self's fine china, then looked up into Cell's very much alive face, and her jaw dropped. "No way! I killed you!"
Cell followed her gaze and stared at the gaping wound in disdain. "Ah, I see. That." He grunted, and the sides of the wound pulsated like a donut-shaped purple heart, throbbing more and more with each repetition until, at once, they spat forth a perfect copy of the section of Cell's body that had been removed. Its color was slightly lighter than the surrounding material, but it quickly darkened until there was no sign that Cell had ever been damaged. "That's better," he announced calmly, as if repairing holes through his body was a matter of everyday routine for him.
Launch dropped to one knee, took aim, and fired again. "Ha! Let's see you survive a head sh-" Her taunt ended abruptly as Cell effortlessly caught the missile in one hand. It exploded, covering everything in the room with soot, but leaving Cell completely intact.
"Enough of this game," said Cell, grabbing her head and giving it a quick squeeze before she could react. She slumped to the floor, unconscious. "Perhaps you were more dangerous than I gave you credit for, but sooner or later, all fall to the might of Cell." He thrust the needle-like tip of his tail into her spine and began to suck the energy from her, watching as her body withered to nothing. "Yes, yes... quite a bit of life energy in this one. I wonder if all humans are this powerful." He scratched the base of his mouthpiece, where his chin would have been if he had been built with one. "If they can damage me with their puny weapons, perhaps I will need to gain more energy before I confront the component androids." He clenched a fist. "I'll just have to find more humans... human cities... and drain them dry."
"There's really no need for that," said a confident voice behind him. Cell whirled to face a man who looked a bit like a human cherry - a shock of bright red hair and skintight clothes of almost the same color. The new arrival casually leaned against the doorframe, awaiting Cell's response.
Cell's tail darted out with such speed that even he couldn't see it - and buried itself to the base of the needle in the wall as its target failed to be in the anticipated position. Cell spun around, searching for his opponent, and spotted him standing amidst the wreckage of the china cabinet.
"Come on," taunted the red man. "You'll have to do better than that if you want to hit me!"
Cell sneered. This was no mere human. Pulling his tail free, he raised his hand and pointed his palm at the man, letting a ball of energy collect in front of it. The man made no attempt to get out of the way, which was fine with Cell. He let the blast go, and it flew at light-speed through the space where the man had been and blew a hole in the dining room wall.
"I'm only trying to help you, you know," the man said from behind Cell. This time, Cell didn't even bother to turn around before shooting an energy ball at the man. Suddenly, the man was in front of him again, still wearing a cocky grin.
Cell paused, considering his strange opponent. The man clearly had incredible speed, greater than Cell's, which was impossible for a human; Dr. Gero's notes had made that abundantly clear. Cell was more powerful than even the last of the Saiyans, the alien race that put the strongest humans to shame in every aspect of fighting ability. Yet despite his advantage, the man made no move to attack, as if waiting for some response from Cell. He decided that, at least once, it wouldn't hurt to indulge his opponent's desire. "What are you offering me?" he asked.
"It looks like you need quite a bit of power before you can accomplish your objective," said the man. "But most humans are relatively weak. It will take a very long time to build up the amount of energy you need from ordinary people." He winked. "On the other hand, I know some humans who have a great deal of energy, ripe for the taking. They should be no match for you, even as weak as you are, but their powers combined should be more than enough for your purposes."
"It sounds like an interesting idea," Cell pretended to agree. "But if I had your power, I'd be strong enough immediately!" He struck with his tail again, hoping to catch his opponent by surprise, but the man once again seemed to vanish and reappear at Cell's side.
The man shook his head sadly. "It doesn't work that way, I'm afraid. You wouldn't want to absorb me. I'm all bones, no meat." He chuckled a bit at his own joke. "No, you wouldn't be able to use my powers even if you were to absorb them. The Sailor Scouts, on the other hand.... I believe you would find their elemental powers quite useful."
Cell mulled over the prospect. "Elemental powers, you say? What use could they possibly be to someone as powerful as myself?"
His opponent shrugged. "I'd think it would be a great advantage to be able to attack with fire, or electricity, or even water, in addition to the energy attacks you can already use. Your opponents certainly wouldn't be expecting it. And I understand that androids are weak against those particular attacks."
The sides of Cell's mouthpiece curled upward despite his demeanor. "Why, yes. That DOES sound interesting. So where exactly can I find these 'Sailor Scouts'?"
"They are not of this world," replied the man. "Only I can take you to them, and only I can bring you back here afterward. I don't think I need to explain myself further."
Cell sneered. "You want me to do something for you in return."
The man's face darkened. "Make sure the Sailor Scouts die. Every one of them."
Cell heartily laughed out loud. "Now that's my kind of favor!"
In the depths of the Negaverse, a portal opened, and Ranma and Lina stepped through it side by side. "Ah, that was a good dinner," announced Lina, patting her belly contentedly.
"Sure was," agreed Ranma. "But are you sure we're supposed to be spending that much money on food? Beryl might not be too happy with that kind of expense...."
"Relax," Lina reassured him. "The gal's loaded. One of her former generals was a millionaire, and when he died, she put all the money into a big expense account. What else is she going to spend it on? It's not like she collects shoes or anything."
"I dunno," said Ranma, rubbing the back of his head. "I just got the feeling that that one meal cost more than everything I've ever eaten in my life put together."
"That has to be an exaggeration," retorted Lina.
"I didn't get to eat much as a kid," replied Ranma. "Wasn't until I got to the Tendo Dojo that I even got to eat real meals, and even then it was a race against Pops to get to the food."
"Doesn't sound like much of a father to me."
Ranma shrugged. "It's made me stronger and faster. So I guess I can't complain."
"Did you want to be that way?" she asked.
"Never wanted to be anything else," he replied, not entirely in the affirmative.
"I guess I'm lucky," observed Lina. "At least I got my talents by choice. It wasn't forced on me so much as I thought it was the right thing to do."
"I don't see anything wrong with the Art," returned Ranma.
"To each his own," conceded Lina. "So, how long until that date with Sailor Mercury?"
"About an hour," replied Ranma. "Until then, I've got nothing to do."
Lina turned to look at him. "So, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
He shrugged again. "Might as well. At least it'll help me remember why I have to kill her."
They strode off toward the crystals, their footsteps eerily quiet as they walked carefully to avoid notice by anyone who might happen to be looking for them. They had to count themselves lucky not to have been confronted yet, but sooner or later, Beryl would inevitably demand to know why they had failed yet again. As far as they knew, this could be the last time they ever set eyes on their loved ones. In Ranma's case, that was almost certain.
The damage to Akane's crystal wasn't as bad as Ranma had expected. The cracks extended from the top of the crystal to a few inches from the bottom, but they were still thin and looked more like highways on a road map than the spiderweb they would eventually become. He gazed longingly at Akane, and heard Lina's sad sigh as she looked up into Gourry's face. He felt like a visitor at a grave, making a token gesture of sentiment to someone who he could only hope would ever be able to appreciate it. But Akane's soul wasn't in the afterlife yet. It was frozen inside with her - or so he hoped. What if he was wrong? What if she was watching him as he failed to carry out his mission and save her...? In fact, what would she think if he DID kill an innocent person to save her? Would she still respect him if he were a murderer? Would she ever forgive him?
His senses tingled. On reflex, he grabbed Lina and pulled her toward him, ducking behind Akane's crystal. "Someone's coming," he hissed before she could say anything.
Lina cautiously peered around the side of the crystal. "I don't see anyone," she whispered.
"It's that girl," Ranma whispered back. "The shadow girl."
"What's she doing here?" Lina wondered. "You don't think she came looking for us, do you?"
"Maybe she's here to look at the crystals, same as us," Ranma guessed.
"But isn't she already on their side?" asked Lina. "Why would they need to put someone she loves in a crystal?"
"Maybe not. She went against Beryl's orders when she saved that girl you attacked," he reminded her. "Maybe she's just like us... being forced to fight against her will."
Lina started to reply, but bit it back as the girl in black stopped in front of one of the crystals. She hadn't really noticed that one before, since her attention had been focused on Gourry's crystal every time she'd come this way (except for the time when she'd been looking at Akane's crystal with Ranma), but now she took a good look at the person within the third crystal and had to stifle an astonished gasp. It was a tiny girl, no more than nine years old from the looks of her, with soft pink hair tied into two cones that looked vaguely familiar, trailing thick tails down the sides of her head. She wore a dark blue dress that looked like an elementary school uniform, and as Lina moved around to see the front of the crystal, she saw the girl's face frozen in sleep. She'd thought seeing Gourry trapped in a crystal had been cruel, and seeing it happen a second time was nearly enough to crush her heart; but the thought of such a young and innocent girl suffering that fate, the threat of being shattered into pieces at even an accidental touch, just sickened her.
Her train of thought ended abruptly as the girl in black sniffled. "Rini...."
'That's this girl's name,' Lina thought to herself as she continued to study the pink-haired girl. What possible connection could she have to the girl in black? And why would the usually emotionless shadowed one be moved to tears over a girl? It couldn't be the same love that Lina had for Gourry, or Ranma for Akane... even admitting the possibility that they were lesbians, the girl in the crystal was far too young.
Lost in her thoughts yet again, Lina almost didn't see the girl in black pitch forward, right toward the crystal. Lina darted forward and barely caught the girl in time, holding her inches away from the crystal's surface. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Thank you," the girl whispered. "I felt dizzy for a moment. It happens far too often these days."
"What's wrong? Are you sick?"
"My body is very weak," the girl replied. Then, in answer to Lina's unasked question, she continued. "I don't even know if I could find the strength to go on, without Rini."
Lina winced at the pain in her chest. It couldn't possibly be from her emotions, could it? It felt like her heart was on fire! "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I didn't know...."
"What do you have to apologize for?" the girl in black asked sullenly. "You didn't do this to her."
"I just assumed.... You felt so evil that I thought you were on THEIR side. I never thought you were being forced to do it, just like us."
"There's nothing to apologize for," repeated the girl. "You weren't entirely wrong." She pushed herself away from Lina and stood up, showing no sign of the weakness that had caused her to stumble.
Lina stared at her quizzically, glancing at the girl in the crystal from time to time. "But... you... she... what are you talking about?"
The girl in black sighed. "I don't suppose there's any point in hiding who I am any longer. Now that you've seen this much of the truth...." She took a step back, and the shadows parted, revealing her form at last. It was hard to tell that there had been a change at all at first glance, as the girl's hair and most of her clothing were as dark as the shadows that had hidden them. But her downturned face, as well as her exposed arms and legs, were deathly pale. When next she spoke, her voice was much lighter than it had been, and could easily have been lost in a crowd of elementary scholars. "My name is Hotaru Tomoe," she introduced herself. "I'm a sixth grader at the Mugen School. Blood type AB, Capricorn."
"Sixth grader?" repeated Lina. "Then you're only -"
"Eleven years old," confirmed Hotaru.
"My god," whispered Lina, her breath catching in her chest. "You're just a kid!"
"How old did you think I was?" asked Hotaru.
"Older than that! I mean, you're even younger than the Sailor Scouts!"
"Age has nothing to do with power," replied Hotaru.
"You did seem too mature to be a grade schooler," said Ranma, coming out from behind the crystals at last. "I had you pegged for at least our age, maybe older."
"I have been through a great deal of hardship because of the powers within me," explained Hotaru. "And through it, the very thing that has weakened my body has made my spirit very strong."
"What do you mean?" asked Lina, feeling that Hotaru was begging that very question.
Hotaru let her head hang, and a strong wind kicked up around her, blowing her skirt and hair up as a wall of dark energy rose, hiding her from view. Lina covered her eyes until the wind died down, and when she looked, Hotaru's clothes had changed. The uniform she now wore was a familiar white leotard with a skirt that was just blue enough to not be solid black, and a ribbon that was an equally dark maroon. Knee-high boots, white gloves, and a tiara completed the ensemble, and the only thing that seemed slightly out of place was the large spear she held, whose blade looked more like a giant can opener. But despite the unusual weapon, her identity was unmistakable.
"You're a Sailor Scout?" Ranma and Lina chorused.
"Not a Sailor Scout," she replied. "I am all that the Sailor Scouts are not. I am their antithesis, the diametric opposite of the sum of their powers. I am the negation of all that is. I am darkness. I am the destroyer. I am the bringer of the end. I am... Sailor Saturn."
"Whoa, that's some angst trip," said Lina. "Could you be a little less gothic?"
"The Sailor Scouts have incredible power, as you have seen," Sailor Saturn continued. "And that power exists to protect the universe. But you, Lina Inverse, should know as well as anyone that no power can exist without an opposing power to balance it. I am the power that balances the Sailor Scouts."
"Ah, I see," said Lina, nodding her understanding. "You're like the black magic to their white magic."
"You could put it that way," Saturn agreed readily.
"So what's that mean?" asked Ranma. "You've gotta use your power for evil just because it's the opposite of theirs?"
"That's not the entirety of the story," replied Saturn. "There is another evil within me, an evil with a consciousness of its own. An evil that controls Hotaru as completely as she controls the power of Saturn."
Lina blinked in surprise. "You too?"
"What do you mean, 'you too?'" Ranma asked suspiciously.
"Never mind," Lina said a bit too quickly. "I was thinking of something else."
"Ever since I was young," injected Saturn, "my body has been the vessel for Mistress 9, the Sovereign of Silence. She could take control of my body at any time and force me to do... horrible things. Mostly, she commanded her lackeys to do the dirty work for her, because my body was too weak for her purposes. For some time, she was trying to collect pure hearts to fuel her plans. But her real goal was to control the power of Saturn itself and use it to destroy the universe so that she and her liege, Pharaoh 90, could rebuild it from the void, placing themselves in control of the new universe."
"Yep, sounds pretty evil to me," agreed Ranma. Lina remained profoundly silent.
"Fortunately, she was never able to accomplish that goal," continued Saturn. "The Planet Power of Saturn can only be used by Hotaru Tomoe, not by any other entity, even one acting through Hotaru's body. Because of that simple protection, Mistress 9 can only accomplish her goal by forcing me to use Saturn's power for her benefit."
"And that's why she has a hostage," Ranma surmised.
Saturn nodded. "I never wanted Rini to get involved in my problems. She was always so kind to me, and I'd never had a friend before...." A tear fell from her eye. "It took all of my strength to prevent Mistress 9 from hurting her. But I could never bring myself to tell her how much danger she was in because of me until it was too late. Then Mistress 9 stole her heart, and the only way I can save her is to use my power. But doing that would destroy the universe."
Lina nodded sagely. "I've been there before."
"Can't you fight Mistress 9 somehow?" asked Ranma.
Saturn shook her head. "My earlier attempts to fight her are what have left me in this weakened state. I would not survive another confrontation. However... that might not be the worst outcome. My death would seal the power of Saturn away forever. But then Mistress 9 would be free to use her own power. It's not as strong, but it would still cause widespread destruction and irreparably damage the universe. As long as she thinks she can control Saturn's power, however indirectly, Mistress 9 will remain within me. It is a question of which one of us will give up first." She chuckled darkly, giving her voice shades of her shadowed self. "It's an ironic situation, isn't it? She holds Rini hostage over me, and I hold the power of Saturn hostage over her. Two hostages, two hostage takers, and only two bodies between them."
"Yeah," Ranma said sarcastically, faking a laugh. "That's comedy."
Lina finally turned to look up at Rini again. "So, you're fighting to protect someone, just like we are. But didn't Beryl say that one of us was fighting for a selfish reason? I thought it was you, but if not...."
The three turned to look at the final crystal, which had been set apart from the others. Its surface was opaque at first, but as they walked closer, the "light" finally shifted to let them see within. What they saw was not a person at all, but a small stick with a forked upper end and a round bottom with two inset jewels that reminded Ranma of the gem in Ryoko's wrist. The stick looked just about the right size to be held in two hands.
"What the heck is that thing?" asked Lina. "Is that what Ryoko's fighting to protect?"
"It looks like the handle of a sword," said Ranma. "A bladeless sword...."
"Could be a sword of light," noted Lina. "Gourry has one, and when it's not active, it looks like an ordinary sword with no blade." Ranma observed that Lina didn't even hesitate when mentioning Gourry this time, but refrained from mentioning it.
Ryoko appeared behind them with a quiet POP! to announce her presence. "So, this is where you guys got to. I was wondering -" She broke off as she finally started to pay attention to her surroundings, which included the unfamiliar personage of Sailor Saturn. "What are you two doing hanging out with a Sailor Scout?"
Sailor Saturn faded to black. "I should leave you three alone. I'm sure you have things to discuss."
Ryoko gaped as Sailor Saturn vanished. "Hey! That's the - She's the -" she sputtered. Finally, her brain settled on "What the heck? She's been a Sailor Scout the whole time?"
"There's more to it than that," said Lina. "But you can ask her about that another time. Right now, we've got a question for you. What the heck is that thing?" She jerked a thumb demonstratively toward the crystal.
Ryoko shrugged. "What are you getting so bent out of shape about? That's just the Master Key."
"Key?" repeated Ranma. "I thought it was a sword handle."
"Yeah, it's a sword," affirmed Ryoko. "But it's a sword handed down through the royal family of Jurai, and they're the only ones who can use it." She paused. "Or at least, that's what they told me."
"I don't care what it is!" shouted Lina. "Why is it so important to you? Why is it all Beryl needs to convince you to fight innocent people?"
"Hey, those gems in the handle hold most of my power!" Ryoko shouted back. "I'm only half a Space Pirate without them!"
"Then you ARE fighting for selfish reasons!" Lina declared. "And to think I trusted you!"
"It's not like that!" Ryoko protested. "There's a very good reason I need those gems!"
"Really?" asked Lina, crossing her arms. "Do tell."
Ryoko sighed. "Fine. And if you still want to hate me after I tell you about it, go ahead. Not like I really care anyway."
"I don't suppose you would," Lina returned coldly.
Ranma felt the compelling urge to back away before the inevitable fight broke out, but reminded himself that, for once, it wasn't going to be over him.
"It all started about a month ago, when this kid named Tenchi pulled that very sword out of a stone and freed me from a three-thousand year sleep," Ryoko began. "I had some fun playing with him for a while, and I admit I got a little carried away and tried to kill him, but the Master Key protected him. I tried to take it from him, but I couldn't even touch it, so in the end I settled for just asking him to give me the gems from the handle."
"After you tried to kill him?" asked Lina.
"We made up," explained Ryoko. "I decided he was too cute to kill, so I figured I'd be his girlfriend instead." She laced her fingers behind her head as she spoke, describing her logic as if it was the most natural decision in the world. "Then that tramp Ayeka came along looking for her long-lost brother slash fiancÃ© Yosho, and kidnapped Tenchi instead, since he was the holder of the Master Key. I had to come to the rescue, of course, but in the process, I destroyed Ayeka's ship. Not a bad thing, really, but Tenchi felt sorry for her being stranded on a strange planet thousands of light-years from home, so he let her stay with him. In the same house, can you believe it? That stuck-up bitch."
"And where were you staying all this time?" Ranma asked semi-innocently.
Ryoko cleared her throat and selectively ignored the question. "So Ayeka naturally decided to make a move on Tenchi (after all, he IS quite a hunk of man), and every time I tried to screw things up, he took her side for some reason. So I got tired of it, and since Tenchi had been kind enough to restore one of my gems -" she demonstratively held up her left arm to show them the stone "- I figured I'd put it to good use and summon a water demon to destroy Ayeka and win Tenchi's heart once and for all."
"The poor guy," said Ranma. "There's nothing good about having girls fighting over you."
"Wasn't going to be much of a fight," said Ryoko. "The demon was supposed to just tear her to pieces and vanish. But I wasn't used to having so little power." She sighed. "Turns out the gem on my left wrist is only the summoning gem. I need the gem on my right wrist to control the demons I summon."
"You shouldn't have used powers you couldn't control," Lina lectured her.
"Hey, I said it was a mistake!" snapped Ryoko. "It's not my fault Tenchi never gave me the other two gems! He just doesn't trust me for some reason!"
"Can't imagine why," mumbled Ranma.
"So there we were," Ryoko continued, "fighting the water demon, when Tenchi finally showed up with the Master Key and started fighting it. But even the Master Key couldn't hurt it. The only thing that will stop that demon is the controlling gem." She pointed to the Master Key. "That's when Chronite showed up. Everything stopped where it was except for me, like time was frozen. Then he took the Master Key out of Tenchi's hands and told me that if I could kill the Sailor Scouts, he'd give me the other two gems and I'd be able to save Tenchi. Getting my full power back is just a side effect, really!"
Lina's angry expression softened. "I guess that makes sense. Maybe you're not all selfish."
Ryoko snorted indignantly. "You're so quick to condemn me... maybe you're really the selfish one. Have you got some kind of secret or something?"
"No way!" Lina protested.
Ryoko grinned. "That sounds like a yes to me," she declared with satisfaction.
Lina seemed to be on the verge of letting go a torrent of some yet unidentifiable emotion, but Ranma quickly shushed her. "Someone's coming," he hissed.
Ryoko floated to the ground and turned around as a young woman stepped out of the darkness with a deep scowl on her face. "Who are you supposed to be?" asked Ryoko, staring the new arrival up and down. "Little Miss Muffet?"
"You will address me as QUEEN Beryl, thank you very much," Beryl said smugly, beaming with muted pride at the fact that her temporary generals hadn't recognized her.
The other three goggled. "Queen Beryl?" Lina repeated incredulously.
"What happened to you?" asked Ranma. "You look... cute."
The scowl returned. "You needn't worry about the details. You have a mission to carry out, and I am VERY displeased with your progress."
Ranma and Lina gulped nervously. Ryoko picked up her legs and floated in place, arms akimbo. "Not my fault they suddenly learned to fight," she murmured.
Beryl's eyes focused on Lina. "You had the perfect chance to kill Sailor Venus," she spat, "and yet you let her get away. And you have destroyed your disguise, and ruined all the effort I put into securing you a place at Grass Valley Junior High School. All that work wasted, and for what? The Sailor Scouts are all still alive!"
"I'm meeting Sailor Mercury tonight -" Ranma began helpfully.
"That is your own business," Beryl snapped, cutting him off. "I don't think I need to remind you of what will happen if you fail again." She turned to Lina. "You, on the other hand...."
Lina's eyes widened in horror as Beryl slowly reached toward the crystal in which Gourry was trapped. Suddenly, she fell to her knees, grabbing Beryl's skirt. "Please, not Gourry! You can't!"
"I've put up with your failures long enough," said Beryl. "You'll have to learn eventually that I don't give second chances forever. And without your disguise, you're useless to me anyway. I'll have Chronite send you back to your own world once I've taught you why you should have obeyed me."
"You know I can't betray you!" pleaded Lina. "Don't forget about the contract! I'm your eternal servant! You don't need to kill Gourry!"
Ranma and Ryoko's jaws dropped. "WHAT?"
Beryl's finger halted less than an inch from the crystal. "Ah, yes. The contract. I suppose there is that... but you haven't held up your end of the deal so far, have you?"
"I'll do better, I swear! Just please, don't kill Gourry!" Lina unthinkingly wiped her tears on Beryl's skirt, hiking it up just high enough to give Ranma and Ryoko a view of her panties.
Beryl angrily snatched the skirt away from Lina, a menacing blue glow shining brightly through her shirt. It took several long moments for the glow to fade. "Very well," she said impatiently. "I will give you one final chance. But this is the end of it. If you fail again, I will destroy the crystal without hesitation, contract or no!" She gave one final sniff of disapproval, then turned and strode calmly away, her hips swaying provocatively under the cover of her miniskirt. But nobody noticed, as their attention was fully focused on Lina. No longer even able to stay up on her knees, she fell onto her hands, tears abundantly replacing the ones she'd wiped away before.
Ranma hesitantly approached her, his hands hovering above her shoulders as he tried to decide whether to touch her or not. "Um, Lina... what was that about a contract?"
Lina turned to stare up at him as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Oh, no! I... it's just...."
"It's not hard to understand," Ryoko said flatly. "She sold herself to Beryl. NOW who's the selfish one around here?"
Lina spun around and glared at Ryoko through her moist eyes. "It's not like that!"
"Gee, where have I heard THAT one?" Ryoko asked mockingly.
"I'M NOT LIKE YOU!" screamed Lina, her voice dying toward the end of the sentence as her throat began to burn. "I never asked for any of it!"
Ranma diplomatically stepped forward, reaching for her. "Hey, it's okay. Just take it easy...."
Lina batted his hand away. "Don't pretend to feel sorry for me! Just leave me alone!" A portal opened behind her, and she turned and ran through it. It snapped shut before Ranma could even start to follow her.
He turned to Ryoko in frustration. "Come on! We've gotta go after her!"
Ryoko merely shrugged. "Go where? It's not like she told us where she was going. Besides, you heard her. She doesn't want us to follow her anyway."
"But we have to!" Ranma insisted. "Something's bothering her, and I have to find out what it is."
"She'll tell you when she's good and ready," said Ryoko. "My guess is it's not something you want to hear anyway. Besides, what do you care about her for? You've already got a girlfriend, right?" She pointed at the crumbling crystal that held Akane. "Just let Lina do what she wants, and if you're lucky, Beryl won't blame you for her failures by association."
"But we understood each other so well," moaned Ranma, clasping his hands into weak fists as if to hold his relationship with Lina together. "Why does she think she's gotta keep this thing to herself?"
"I'm not the Loveline," replied Ryoko. "But I am a woman, and I know when a woman wants a man to keep out of her business. Just let it go for now. She'll come back when she wants to."
"I can snap her out of this," he insisted. "I can help her."
"No offense, but you're about the last person she wants to see right now," Ryoko contradicted him. "She's obviously ashamed of whatever it is that made her run away. Nobody wants to be seen like that, especially not by someone they care about."
Ranma stared at her, not sure which question to ask first. "How come you know so much about this?"
"Well, as a former Space Pirate, I've got a lot to be ashamed of," explained Ryoko. "It was okay to be proud of my accomplishments when I only cared about myself, because I always did what was best for me. But when I met Tenchi, I suddenly wanted him to be proud of me, and I knew how much he would hate all the horrible things I'd done in my past. I've been trying to forget about my pirate days ever since."
"Has it worked?" asked Ranma.
Ryoko shrugged. "Maybe. Can't say until I see Tenchi again."
Ranma nodded. "So why are you telling me all this?"
Ryoko suddenly seemed to get defensive. "What, I can't give people advice?"
"You don't seem like that type to me," replied Ranma. "No offense."
Ryoko crossed her arms indignantly. "Well, it just so happens that I'm tired of your constant angst, and I figure maybe if I can help you patch things up with Lina, you might stop whining about how miserable your lives are so I can get a little peace."
"We're not like that!" snapped Ranma. "We're just friends!"
"And the third also doth protest too much," said Ryoko triumphantly.
"Never mind," she replied with a wink. "Just trust me and leave Lina alone. Once she gets over it, she'll be back and practically begging to tell you her dirty little secret."
Ranma couldn't hold back a blush. "I really don't think it's anything like that...."
"Of course not," Ryoko teased him, rubbing a finger under his chin. "Just keep telling yourself that." She started to float away, but turned back as a thought occurred to her. "By the way, if you're planning to practice flying again, you might want to move away from the crystals. No telling what effect a buildup of energy might have on them."
"Good idea, thanks," said Ranma, letting the energy he'd been collecting die down as he sheepishly retreated into the darkness.
Ryoko watched him go and sighed to herself. "He really doesn't get it, does he?" Whether she meant his situation with Lina or her real motivation for helping him, she had no idea. But he certainly wasn't going to last long if he kept going the way he was. She looked down at Akane's decaying crystal and frowned. No, not long at all....