The Prospective Senshi


    This was spawned by wanting to write a story with an ending that's typically used as a premise, in part because of how much fan-fiction — specifically a story of this nature — tends to end once the premise is written (if not shortly afterward). That said, that part of the story is easy to guess, and thus a poor choice as the meat and potatoes of the plot. So, I had to give it something that a reader would have to figure out as the story progressed, which is why the story is longer than just a few thousand words.
    I recommend that fast readers practice some moderation in the pace at which they read. I tend to say as much as I can with as little as I can, so it's not uncommon for information to be implicit and/or concise. If you read too fast then you might not pick up or absorb what you'll need to know for something that comes up later.
    This story leans rather heavily on the Sailor Moon manga, so I would not be surprised if readers were unfamiliar with various things that reference events from it that differ from the anime. I can only hope that I managed to make them understandable within the context of the story, for those who haven't read the manga.
    Before anyone complains about a certain character not being present, or their part being too brief, that's just the way it is. A lot of characters in the canon stories — even some of the main ones — have been absent from whole episodes, chapters and story archs, or even longer than that. I wasn't going to include or use much of characters that I couldn't find a good reason to utilize, beyond making an appearance for the sake of appearing in the story (and ultimately being irrelevant).
    You may notice a few loose ends, and as far as I know they are all intentional. That's because — while this story can stand on its own — it can be continued, but I won't be the one to continue it. Originally I was going to write a sequel, but I realized that I have enough things to write as it is. So, I have left some things open. In particular, I left open the kind of things that I felt would either benefit more from being expanded upon in a sequel, or would have been an awkward divergence within this story. If you'd like to write a sequel, you don't even need to ask. Just do it. Though I'll try to respond as promptly as possible if you need me for anything.

    I'd like to thank some of the folks over at Fukufics for their input. You know who you are. If you don't, you should see someone about your amnesia.


    Early one Sunday morning, with the grass and trees glistening with the moisture that had come from a recent rain shower, four girls found themselves squaring off against each other at Furinkan High's soccer field. It wasn't unusual for these girls to be at odds with each other, but that tended to involve two opposing parties, and its occurrence usually depended on the circumstances. This confrontation was planned, however, and saw each girl taking their own corner of their arena; an arena that — for some reason — required them to wear fancy gowns that were more befit for princesses.
    Spying on them, from within a copse of trees that were by the field, was Ranma. He had a strange look on his face as he peered around the tree that he had chosen to hide behind, because he didn't know what to think about what was going on. He had known that Akane, Ukyo, Shampoo and Kodachi had been acting strange for the past few weeks, but that didn't explain how they had changed their normal attire into what they were now wearing, as if by magic.
    He was worried that Nabiki might be right: all four of the girls were being possessed, or something to that effect. It was the only thing that he could think of to explain their change in behavior, as well as their recent campaign to actively do each other in. He was used to them fighting over him, but now they seemed to be fighting over something else and he had no idea what it could be.
    Every attempt to learn what was going on had been met with resistance, either verbally or physically (usually the latter). Nabiki had also tried to find out, in her own way, but she had given up after Akane had done something embarrassing to her. Exactly what had been done to her, she would not say. However, it had been the impetus that had made her approach him with her concerns.
    The most notable change in their behavior, was that they acted as if they were more privileged than those around them; not much unlike how Kuno did. It hadn't been all that bad with Akane, at first: she had only been a little more demanding and dismissive. As her fights with the other girls persisted, without apparent success, that had changed. She had gradually begun to act more like a spoiled princess who expected her every word to be followed, though it was mostly contained at home in order to keep up an appearance with her friends.
    That wasn't the oddest thing to have happened during the whole affair, as far as he was concerned. Every now and again Akane would kindly tell Kasumi to do something and, while it was being done, she would look at him in a way that made it seem like she was rubbing something in. It was as if she were trying to antagonize him by ordering Kasumi to do something. He couldn't begin to understand what that was about.
    Then there were the times when one of the four girls seemed to make a slip and treat him as if he were a different person. The only exception was Kodachi, who had begun to treat his female form as if she really were someone else. Kasumi began to treat him differently, as well; except she did so more consistently, and it was a far more pleasant experience. She was especially attentive whenever he was a girl, but he chalked that up to it being a girl thing, and how it wouldn't be proper for her to get too touchy-feely with a boy. In the end, he wasn't about to question something that seemed innocent and good when things were going to pot with the other girls.
    Cologne didn't seem to think that anything was wrong, even though whatever-it-was seemed to be affecting her great-granddaughter, too. In fact, even though she had been unwilling to say anything on the matter when he had confronted her about what was happening, it was clear to him that she not only knew what was going on, but approved of it. She had even gone so far as to ask him whether or not he were interested in working at her restaurant as a waitress, to replace Shampoo, since she was no longer going to make her work there.
    Perhaps the most annoying part about the whole affair, was how frequently one of the four girls would use a cat to get rid of him. However, if they hadn't done it so often, he never would have realized that they had all been using the same one, since his fear tended to wrest his attention away from even the most obvious of details. It made him wonder if the cat was somehow responsible for what was going on.
    His attention was brought back to the present when Ukyo's peel met with Akane's mallet, thus beginning the fight. Shampoo rushed in after them with a pair of chúi, while Kodachi lobbed a bomb at the now-gathered trio — one that no doubt contained some kind of debilitating powder. The three broke away in time to avoid the bomb's explosion — its contents included — and rejoined the fight by moving it over to Kodachi, who entered the fray with a gymnastics ribbon in one hand and a club of the same variety in the other.
    While Ranma didn't want to see any of them hurt (including Kodachi), he knew — from experience — that it would be futile to get involved. No matter his intentions, they had made it quite clear that they didn't want him interfering with their business. Still, it was interesting to watch; especially when they began to use what could only be described as magic. He didn't know when or how they had learned to throw around balls of fire, lances of ice, blades of wind and chunks of rock, but he hoped to correct that by the time whatever-was-happening was over. Well, assuming that things ever returned to normal, anyway.
    Upon hearing a rustling sound coming from a bush in front of him, he spared a moment to glance down and see what the cause of it could be. A second later a familiar cat, whose coat was black save for its white paws, belly and chest, hopped out of the bush. Above its green eyes, on its forehead, was what appeared to be a crescent moon-shaped bald spot.
    "Cat!" Ranma screamed, and leapt away without turning around, out of reflex. His back quickly found a tree, and the impact against the back of his head sent him reeling long enough for him to fall forward, onto his face. Between having a face full of wet grass, and the shower of water droplets that were shaken from the leaves above, it was enough to activate his curse.
    Once she regained enough of her wits, she rose to her hands and knees. Then she groaned in annoyance, for the indignity of being scared by a cat in addition to being changed into a girl. Of course, once the thought reminded her of the situation, she jumped to her feet and beat a hasty retreat before she could see the cat again, her reason for being there in the first place forgotten.
    The cat continued to stare in surprise after the redheaded girl had vaulted over the school's perimeter wall, and out of sight. If one were close enough, they would have heard it whisper, "Princess Hestia...?"

Chapter 1

    From within the shadows of a nearby bush, a pair of green, feline eyes quietly observed as — one by one — four young women gathered in the middle of a school's soccer field. They each appeared to be wary of the other, and kept their distance.
    Phoebe released a tired sigh at the sight, knowing that what they were about to do wasn't going to resolve anything. They were all too stubborn and ambitious to give up the chance to become the Earth's sailor senshi, even if they did agree to the condition that the winner would take all in what would be their latest battle of contention.
    The only way to officially withdraw from being among those being considered, for the right to become the sailor senshi of the Earth, was by making a formal request to the one given the responsibility to observe the rite of succession (which would be herself, of course). Only one person — of those who had initially been chosen — had ever done so. As understandable as their decision had been, she felt that the best choice had been lost; and she hadn't been the only one to have had that sentiment.
    It was then that her sharp hearing heard Ukyo say, "So, are we going to do this or aren't we?"
    She watched as they exchanged looks with each other before, at some unspoken agreement, they summoned their princess garb. Akane's gown was a royal blue trimmed in gold, Shampoo's was a pale lavender trimmed in white, Ukyo's was a medium brown trimmed in green, and Kodachi's was black with blood red trim. Shampoo's and Kodachi's gowns were the racier of the four, regarding the fabric that they were made of, the cut of their necklines, and the amount and placement of the lace. By contrast, Ukyo's gown was the plainest, while Akane's had more in the way of frill.
    She supposed that they wanted their fight to look official, although she doubted that any one of them would treat it as such if they lost. It was sad, really, because it would be no different from how their past selves had behaved. She had hoped that things would turn out differently, but it had only gotten worse because — in addition to their magic — they had each learned some form of martial arts and had become fighters with awesome abilities. Well, when compared to the average person, for she had witnessed those whose skills were greater still.
    One such person was the man that they each hoped to impress by becoming the sailor senshi of the Earth. She didn't really know how they hoped to accomplish such a thing, considering what she had learned from Kasumi, in regard to how they treated the poor guy. They had been nice enough to consider his fear of cats, at least, and had thus told her to stay clear of Akane's home; although — oddly enough — that hadn't stopped them from using her against him, whenever he had tried to interfere with their fights.
    When the fighting finally got underway, she shook her head in wonder and disappointment. She was reluctant to move forward to the next step in their determination ritual, but she couldn't forsake her duty. The time was drawing near for them to be presented to the existing sailor senshi, so that they could be impressed upon by the four princesses prior to conducting the ceremony that would judge who was the most worthy to become the sailor senshi of the Earth. She only wished that the selection hadn't been so poor. In particular, she wished that a certain princess had remained in the running.
    It was at that moment that she caught a familiar scent in the air. With the ice, fire and wind magic moving the air to and fro, it was difficult to pinpoint the direction from which it had come. However, after turning her head this way and that, she was able to find what she was looking for behind her: it was none other than the girl's common love interest, Ranma. There wasn't much to see of him, what with all of the leaves and branches in her way, as well as the tree that he was hiding behind, but she could see enough of his face to positively identify him.
    She feared that he might do something rash and get caught up in one of the girl's spells (or even more than one), so she decided that she would have to get him to leave. She didn't want to use his fear of cats to do it, but she didn't know how else she could manage it; not without also having him learn that she wasn't an ordinary cat, at any rate. It was bad enough that he had seen her charges use magic, if not more than that.
    With her decision made, she turned about and leapt out of the bush. As expected, the young man immediately jumped away and yelped in fright. She winced when he slammed into a tree, then fell face-first onto the ground. After that her brain struggled to bring coherent thoughts together, because she couldn't believe what had happened next. Not only did she not think it possible, for reasons not having to do with transformation magic, but she also thought it too good to be true.
    The boy had become a girl with fiery red hair and, as said girl rose to her hands and knees, her vantage point afforded her the sight of a familiar face; a face that she had never expected to see again. And when the girl opened her eyes, to reveal irises that were as deep and blue as the world's oceans, her unlikely identity was confirmed without a shadow of a doubt. The girl's scent was further evidence, though she was more accustomed to sensing it among other pleasant aromas. Even so, her thoughts raced this way and that with the improbabilities, wandering here and stumbling over there with the possibilities.
    With her mind so preoccupied, there was little wonder as to why she was unable to act by the time the girl had regained her bearings and made good her escape. It also didn't help that the girl's ability to clear a wall — in a single, unaided bound, no less — was so unlike what she would have expected her to be capable of, when drawing upon old memories.
    That's how she found herself alone, with the sounds of the four-sided fight behind her falling upon deaf ears, and her eyes wide yet seeing nothing of consequence. She wondered. She hoped. Could the girl really be...
    "Princess Hestia...?"

    Kasumi was sweeping the walkway between the front gate and the front door when Ranma returned. She didn't need to look up to know, but she raised her head and stilled her broom all the same, so she could properly greet the redhead. Besides which, she had to do something about the frown that marred the girl's beautiful face.
    She smiled warmly in greeting. "Welcome back, imouto-chan."
    Ranma stopped abruptly, due to how lost in thought she had been. It took her a second to process what had been said before her frown turned upside down, to better complement the expression of the speaker. By now she was accustomed to Kasumi calling her such a thing, and welcomed it, even if it did seem strange for her to do so. Despite that, being Kasumi's little sister just felt... right.
    "Onee-chan," she easily acknowledged, before her visage clouded over once more.
    Kasumi showed her concern. "Is something the matter?"
    Ranma considered what she knew before she sighed and said, "I don't know. Maybe. The girls were fighting again, but..."
    "Yes?" Kasumi prompted.
    "Well..." Ranma crossed her arms and stared down at the ground, as she recalled what she had seen. "They changed into these fancy dresses. One second they weren't, and then — poof — they were. Then, not long after they began their fight... I guess they started to use magic, or something. They were throwing fireballs around, and chunks of the ground were flying about without anyone using their hands to do it, except to point where they wanted them to go."
    Kasumi heard her mumble, "And I feel like I've done that before myself," afterward, but chose not to comment on it. Instead, she asked, "How did it turn out?"
    Ranma grimaced and — with evident annoyance — said, "That stupid cat was there," as if that explained everything. To those who knew about Ranma's fear of cats, it did at that. Left unsaid was her suspicions concerning the cat's role in recent happenings, and the ill feelings that she had for being unable to get beyond her fear in order to resolve said suspicions.
    Kasumi drew Ranma into a hug and said, "I'm sure that everything will work out," before she released her.
    Ranma nodded her head half-heartedly, though more due to the hug than what had been said. As pleasant as Kasumi's change in behavior toward her were, it was still relatively new and novel. She might have been a bit put off and embarrassed if not for the fact that it felt normal, familiar. She didn't know why, since her mother was... distant, for lack of a better term. She was best described as a presence — a foreboding presence — rather than as a tangible object.
    "Well," she spoke up, thus ending the brief lull in their exchange, "I'm sure I'll figure something out." Her face brightened a bit. "Until then, maybe I'll work out a way to throw icicles around."
    "Try not to wear yourself out before lunch," Kasumi softly advised.
    Ranma smiled fetchingly. "Sure thing, onee-chan."
    As she made her way into the house, thinking that at least one good change had occurred during the past few weeks, that one good change watched after her with equal parts fondness and concern.
    "You knew," a familiar voice spoke up from behind Kasumi, in an accusing tone. She turned about and looked down by her feet, where she saw Phoebe glaring up at her. The Earth's guardian cat didn't look very happy.
    With a sigh of resignation, she closed her eyes and admitted, "I did."
    "Why didn't you tell me?" Phoebe demanded.
    Kasumi calmly met Phoebe's angry gaze. "Because he is adamant about being a guy."
    Phoebe tried to argue. "But that's—"
    "He's also engaged to both Akane and Ukyo, and has entanglements with Shampoo and Kodachi," Kasumi added.
    Phoebe wasn't about to give up. "That may be so, but—"
    "Furthermore," Kasumi went on, "his mother will have him commit seppuku if she ever deems him to be unmanly. I doubt very much that the memories of a princess — and one as feminine as Hestia had been — would be beneficial in that regard."
    Phoebe bowed her head and sighed in defeat. "There is that, isn't there?"
    Kasumi looked down upon the guardian cat with no small amount of sympathy and understanding. "I know you want Ranma to be a candidate in the rite of succession, but I'll always stand by their decision: she wasn't interested then, and I know that he won't be interested now."
    "You're probably right," Phoebe grudgingly admitted. She turned a sad eye toward the house. "But you heard her earlier. What she witnessed the other girls doing at the school has no doubt caused her memories of the past to rise closer to the surface. And if what I witnessed a moment ago is any indication of how you have been treating her recently, it's probably only a matter of time before she remembers — whether we desire it or not."
    With a guilty expression on her face, Kasumi looked toward the dojo. She had a feeling that that was where Ranma was, no doubt trying to figure out with martial arts what the girls had done with magic.
    "I can't help it," Kasumi quietly admitted. "Hestia had been... special."
    Phoebe regarded her with a look of understanding. "I'm not blaming you, child. However, at this rate, it may be best that she remember under controlled circumstances. There's no telling how the other girls will react if they knew that Ranma remembered being Hestia. They had felt threatened by her then, so they will likely feel threatened by her now."
    Kasumi nodded her head in agreement. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine the potential troubles and complications that might arise if Ranma were to regain the memories of his past life while in the presence of any one of the four girls. Of course, considering how he was also their love interest, that was bound to create its own set of troubles and complications, too.
    "It might be for the best," Kasumi finally decided, after releasing a sigh of resignation. She opened her eyes and considered her companion with a meaningful — if somewhat ominous — look. "But I don't want to hear a single word about the rite of succession coming out of your mouth while in his presence. Not even if he brings the topic up himself: you will not see it as an opportunity to suggest or otherwise request that he once again become a candidate for it. Do you understand?"
    "Perfectly," Phoebe grumbled, looking put out.

    Four princesses of bygone kingdoms were — by now — panting and slouching in exhaustion. Their battlefield was riddled with numerous scorch marks, craters, melting projections of ice, and jagged gouges. Some of the damage extended beyond the embankment that surrounded the soccer field, notably evidenced by a fallen tree and two gaping holes in the school building.
    While the combatants had expected to get down and dirty, the pristine state of their gowns were still a marked contrast when compared to any particular part of the body that hadn't been covered by them. No one's hair escaped being mussed, nor was any bare skin left unblemished by dirt, bruise or cut. Some of their faces were red, due more to physical blows than physical exertion; and more than one lip had been split, as well as eye swollen.
    Akane raised her forearm and wiped the dirt, blood and sweat from her brow. She — like the others — knew that any move now could possibly mean their last. They were now too tired and handicapped to take an offensive action without also leaving themselves vulnerable to another's attack. Seeing as no one was willing to commit to another move, she realized that she wasn't the only one who didn't want to take a risk.
    "So," Akane said between pants, as she glanced around at the others, "shall we call it a draw?"
    Kodachi's back straightened, in order to display a bit more dignity than she had before. "Let's."
    "Shampoo no want easy win," said person blustered nonchalantly.
    Ukyo wasn't about to let that comment slide. "Yeah, I wouldn't want to take advantage of anyone who's having an off-day."
    Akane rolled her eyes. "Let's just call it day and leave it at that."
    With no small amount of caution, the group returned to wearing their mundane attire and went their separate ways. Whether they would ever get together to fight in the way that they had just done was unknown, but they were at least assured that they would be able to lick their wounds and fight another day.

    Kasumi and Phoebe stood in front of the entrance to the dojo, which was currently closed. They could hear Ranma doing something inside, though nothing particularly physical by the sound of it. The guardian cat's right ear twitched upon hearing a muttered curse, having never heard the voice that had produced it utter such language in the past.
    Phoebe glanced up at Kasumi, whose reincarnated presence hadn't made any sense to her until a short time ago. She reasoned that Queen Serenity must have sent her forward because she had also sent Hestia into the future, perhaps fearing that she would need her support and protection. Ironically, according to Kasumi, Ranma was one of the most formidable fighters that she knew of.
    However, that didn't explain why the queen had included Hestia with everyone else, knowing very well that — in addition to her withdrawal from the rite of succession — the princess had made it quite clear that she abhorred violence and disliked getting involved with politics. She'd had no interest in becoming a sailor senshi, and had only been among the chosen because she had bowed to her parents' will. Only something that she wouldn't speak about — which those close to her had assumed to be a threat — had given her the nerve to go against the wishes of her parents.
    Kasumi returned Phoebe's gaze and nodded her head, showing that she was ready for what they were about to do. She didn't particularly like it, but she had to agree that it was probably for the best. In truth, she wanted nothing more than to be reunited with Hestia, but her conscience was working overtime to discourage such selfish thoughts.
    It didn't help that she recalled the time when Ranma had bumped his head and, in the wake of the resulting amnesia, the personality of his past life had shone through loud and clear; all that had been missing were the memories. Knowing what she now knew, looking back on that event made her yearn for more. Between doing housework and cooking dinner together, she had felt closer to Ranma at that time than any of her sisters... in either life.
    With a mental shake of her head, she stepped up to the door and rapped her knuckles against it. Phoebe moved to the side, so she wouldn't be seen by Ranma. The last thing that they wanted was for him to get scared and run away.
    "Ranma?" Kasumi called out. "May I come in?"
    "If you want to," came the reply.
    After sparing Phoebe a momentary glance, Kasumi squared her shoulders and slid the door open. She gasped when a gust of cool air hit her, and the sudden chill made her shudder and break out in gooseflesh. That wasn't about to stop her, so she folded her arms over her abdomen and stepped inside. It felt as if she were entering a giant refrigerator.
    "Sorry," Ranma apologized, as she rubbed the back of her head in a sheepish manner. The other arm she raised, to show that her forearm was covered by ice that was an inch or so thick. "I've only managed to project cold air, not ice."
    Kasumi couldn't help smiling in amusement as she approached. "That's okay, imouto-chan. Too bad it's not Summer, or else I would have asked you to practice in the house."
    Ranma stuck out her tongue in response.
    "Still," Kasumi went on, "you really want to do what you saw the other girls doing, don't you?"
    "Of course!" Was Ranma's immediate response, who puffed out her chest and smirked. "There's no way that I'm going to pass something like that up!"
    Kasumi bit her lip. "What if I said that I could help you?"
    Ranma blinked her eyes in bemusement. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it and seemed to reconsider what she wanted to say. Finally — and with a dead-serious expression on her face — she asked, "You know what's going on, don't you?"
    Kasumi knew that there was no going back, so she nodded her head in the affirmative. "I do."
    "Is it the cat?" Ranma posed, almost growling. "Is the cat controlling them, or something?"
    Kasumi shook her head. "The... cat is a part of it, but not in the way that you are thinking."
    "Then what's going on?" Ranma asked, frowning. "Why are they always fighting each other? Why are they acting differently? Just what does that cat have to do with it?" She paused and gave Kasumi a significant look. "You have changed, too. I'm not about to complain, but..." She lowered her eyes, and her cheeks flushed. "I'm... worried."
    Kasumi gently placed her hands on Ranma's shoulders, then bent down and kissed her on the top of her head. Ranma looked up at her with a mixture of embarrassment and confusion, once she stood upright again, and wondered about her smile — it seemed a touch sad.
    "There's only one way that you're allowed to find out," Kasumi stated, her kind eyes holding onto the pair of blue, expressive ones before her. "Do you trust me?"
    Ranma nodded her head mutely in reply.
    "Then, please, sit down and close your eyes," Kasumi softly directed.
    Ranma hesitated, wondering how being in such a prone position had to do with anything. Then she reprimanded herself and did as she had been directed, completely forgetting to take care of her ice-encrusted arm in the process. After all, if she couldn't trust Kasumi, then who could she trust? For her to not trust Kasumi would be the same as doubting her own abilities as a martial artist.
    Kasumi looked toward the door and signaled for Phoebe to enter. The guardian cat did so as silently as she could, because she didn't want to alert Ranma of her presence. Once she was in front of the unseeing redhead, she turned to face her and sat down on her haunches.
    "The only way for you to be allowed to know what's going on," Kasumi spoke up, ending the silence that had descended upon the room, "is if you were to know everything already."
    Ranma's brow creased in confusion upon hearing that. Before she could open her eyes and voice a question, however, Phoebe initiated a mind meld with her. As soon as she felt the warm pressure against her forehead, thoughts concerning the present dispersed and began to explore the memories of another time... of another life.

Chapter 2

    Five-year-old Hestia, of House Kharis, stood out in the hall, next to the arched doorway that led into the ballroom, feeling nervous and sad. Every now and again she would peer around the wall, to look at the partygoers in the ballroom, perchance to spy her parents. They were disappointed in her for being such a shy girl, and it didn't help that the looming size of the adults made her scared as well. She only felt comfortable around people that she had spent a lot of time with, and — unfortunately — her parents were not among them.
    Suddenly, she felt something cold and wet falling down the back of her dress. She jumped in surprise and squealed, which seemed to inspire a host of laughter from behind her. She tried to adjust her dress so the ice would get past her waist, but her efforts against the unyielding waistline of her dress only seemed to increase the laughter. With tears in her eyes, she turned around to see who was responsible for her mistreatment.
    What she found were four girls that were around her own age, in formal dress like herself. The girl in the front of the group, who had long, free-falling, dark blue hair, was Juno, of House Menoetius. Behind her, on her right, with her long, brown hair held up by a white ribbon, was Minerva, of House Atlas. On her left, with her raven locks in a ponytail that brushed the top of her left shoulder, was Dysnomia, of House Pallas. Between them was the purple-haired Eos, of House Hyperion.
    Seeing that girls of her own age group and social status had done such a thing to her, she felt betrayed in addition to being upset. She began to cry, and her wailing was loud enough for the other girls to run away, fearing that they would be caught and punished if they stuck around long enough for someone to see them.

    Seven-year-old Hestia sniffled from where she sat on her bed, as an old and kindly healer put together a remedy that would dispel the curse that had been placed upon her. She gazed down at her forearms, where she clearly saw enough hair for several grown men — thick and black — sprouting from them. The sight of it inspired more tears.
    "There, there," the healer soothed, as she sat beside her. She held a bowl in her lap, which had some kind of viscous and smelly substance in it. "We'll have this curse removed in no time."
    Hestia sniffled and wiped at her nose before she plaintively asked, "Why do they do these things?"
    "Because they don't know any better," the healer replied. She placed a hand on top of Hestia's head and stroked the girl's hair. "They hear the opinions of their family — in regard to your own — and act accordingly. It is no fault of your own that they do so."
    Hestia bowed her head. "I don't understand."
    "You will, in time," the healer said, as she scooped up a dollop of the bowl's contents with her fingers. "Now, be a dear and hold out your arms, so we can dispel this unsightly curse."

    Hestia leaned against the wall and tried to catch her breath, hoping that she wouldn't be found. Lord and Lady Pallas had come to visit her parents, and with them they had brought their daughter, Dysnomia. Said daughter wanted to test her magical herbs on her, and had given chase when she had run away.
    "Miss Hestia?"
    Startled, she took a good look at her surroundings for the first time, and realized that she was in the kitchen. She saw a half dozen or so servants — both young and old — at work, tending to the pig that was roasting on a spit in the fireplace, preparing a platter for said pig, kneading dough, filling bowls with various fruits, taste-testing soup from a cauldron, and removing pies from the oven. She wondered if it was always so busy when they made dinner, or if it was only when they had guests.
    Nervously, she turned her attention to the servant that had addressed her. She was an older woman who looked authoritative yet concerned. "Y-yes?"
    The servant knelt before her and spoke in a kindly voice. "What are you doing here? Is there something wrong?"
    Hestia couldn't tell her the reason for her being there, or else it would likely get back to Dysnomia's parents. While it was unlikely that they would punish their daughter, there was no doubt in her mind that it would spur Dysnomia to do something more to her, as if in response to an actual threat. However, she didn't think that she should lie, either...
    Considering what she was surrounded by, an obvious answer came to her. "Can I help?"
    The servant blinked her eyes in bemusement. "I don't think the Lord and Lady would—"
    "Please?" She interjected, and gave what she hoped was a very good impression of a lost and saddened puppy.
    It was obvious by the expression on the servant's face, and the wringing of her hands, that her decision had not come about without a significant wrestling match in her mind. "...If the young miss wishes."
    Hestia was all smiles when the servant found an apron small enough for her to use, one that was usually reserved for the scullery maids. The other servants gave each other looks of uncertainty, but eventually found some simple and safe tasks for her to do.

    Eight-year-old Hestia stood beside the caretaker of the garden, taking in the sight of the widespread destruction within his domain. It was the result of a disagreement between Eos and Minerva, who — like Juno and Dysnomia (who had, only a few weeks prior, burned down half of the stables as they fought over a pony) — were beginning to unravel their ties of friendship with each other. There would be monetary compensation, to be sure, but it would never make up for the time that it would take for the place to regain its natural splendor.
    She looked up at the caretaker and took in the sad and weary expression on his face, which made his finely-wrinkled visage seem much older than it really was. He was such a gentle and kind man, one of the many servants with which she had friendly relations, and it upset her to see him in his current state. Even though her parents had gotten on her case regarding her recent dalliances in the kitchen, she had no doubt about what she wanted to do.
    She tugged on the caretaker's trousers and got his attention. "I'm going to help you."
    He looked into her determined gaze and a smile tugged at his lips. "Is there anything that I could do to discourage you?"
    Hestia answered with a fierce shake of her head.
    "Then I guess it can't be helped," the caretaker replied, before he turned away and began to walk back into the castle. "We'd best find something more appropriate for you to wear."
    Hestia smiled brightly and followed after him. She didn't like seeing the people that she cared about being hurt or sad. Nor did she want to be like the princesses that had caused her so much trouble over the years, so she was proud of what she was doing.

    Hestia found herself in the library. It was brightly lit by chandeliers, sconces and table lamps, which was at odds with the silence that permeated the place. In particular, it was at odds with how she currently felt: because she was depressed.
    She had been accustomed to how distant her parents behaved, in relation to herself. Beyond breakfast and dinner, as well as the times that they held court at the palace, she was unlikely to encounter them at any other time or occasion. Typically, if they had anything to say to her, it was usually conveyed by a messenger, or one of the other servants. It had become normal and expected, so she hadn't really felt the need to complain.
    Once her younger brother had become old enough to be tutored and groomed for his future, and received some doting and encouragement from their parents for his progress, she had begun to realize a greater part of how her world worked. A conversation with her nanny, as well as a few other servants, had only confirmed what she had come up with: she was a thing to her parents, who were obligated to make use of her existence as best as they could. Her brother wasn't better off, being treated like a show horse, but at least he was seen as living property, instead of the inanimate variety.
    The only difference between them, as far as she could tell, was their gender. She didn't understand why that would make a difference, but that seemed to be the case. Even the male servants were given better wages, for some reason. Being told that that was just the way that things were had only made her more confused, because it wasn't really an answer to what she wanted to understand.
    Since her tutor was unwilling to teach her what she wanted to know, she had come to the library so she could find out for herself. Her limited vocabulary would certainly cause her some difficulty but, unlike many of the servants under their family's employ, at least she could read.

    Eleven-year-old Hestia used a trowel to pat down the soil around a newly-transplanted flower. She looked over at a nearby cart, which carried many more pots that contained the same type of flower, and wiped the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her blouse. She still had a long way to go before the path that circled around the new gazebo would be lined by flowers.
    She knew that she should have saved her ongoing efforts in the garden for another time, in order to be more presentable for her soon-to-be-introduced lady-in-waiting, but what better impression was there to be made when you're being yourself? Besides which, she had heard that the girl belonged to the nomadic tribe of female warriors that spent time within their borders during the warmer portions of the year, so maybe she would appreciate a princess who got her hands dirty. (Well, figuratively speaking, since she was wearing gloves.)
    Normally a relative would have been chosen to serve such a role, but her parents seemed to think that she required a close bodyguard in addition to having someone that could "save" her from being a recluse. While the latter reason was understandable, the former made her think that her parents were up to something, aside from the fact that they were willing to protect whatever they had invested in her. Hopefully it was also being done to expand social relations with the tribe, since trade relations and other services were already doing well.
    When she heard the footfalls of hard-soled footwear drawing near, she looked up and saw a manservant escorting a girl who wore a formal dress, and it was obvious that she was their goal. The girl appeared to be a few years older than herself, and had her long, plaited, brown hair draped over a shoulder. She seemed a bit nervous, and her gait was a bit unsteady, but her eyes shone with determination.
    After removing her gloves and placing them on the cart, she stood up to meet them a moment before they arrived. The manservant, who held himself stiffly, gave a deep bow before he said, "My lady, as by your request, I have brought before you Hippolyta, princess of the Amazons."
    "Thank you," she acknowledged. "You may go."
    She returned her full attention to Hippolyta, who stood before her awkwardly. She didn't seem all that comfortable wearing fluff and finery, and probably didn't know what to do or say seeing as their cultures no doubt followed different customs. It was likely a very tense moment for her.
    Once she was sure that the manservant was out of earshot, she smiled at her companion. "You may relax. In time you shall learn how to act like everyone else expects, but you may be yourself around me."
    Hippolyta lost some of the stiffness in her posture. "Really?"
    "Truly," Hestia assured. "We are stuck together, you and I. There's no telling what our parents are plotting (especially mine), so we should make the best of it."
    With a sigh of relief, Hippolyta dropped her shoulders and smiled. "I'm glad to hear that." She picked at the material that hung from her sleeve as a flag would from a poll. "These clothes are so impractical... Especially the shoes. I would rather be dressed as you are now."
    Hestia waved her hand toward the flower pots. "You're welcome to, if you'd like to help me with this."
    Hippolyta gave an eager nod of the head, and with that they set off toward the castle for a change of raiments. While they were on their way, Hestia noticed that her companion had an expression that bespoke of wanting to say something. However, it seemed like she needed help in getting the words out.
    She tilted her head in an inquiring manner. "Is there something on your mind?"
    Hippolyta hesitated before she spoke. "If I may be so bold..." When she received non-verbal consent from Hestia in response, she went on to say, "When I was told of your age, I had not expected myself to meet someone who was more mature than they appeared to be."
    "Do not allow appearances to fool you," Hestia replied evenly, "for you will no doubt encounter many who act younger than they appear to be."
    The two girls shared a look for a moment, and once they couldn't contain themselves any longer they began to laugh.

    While Phoebe continued to work on releasing the memories of Ranma's past life, Kasumi observed with no small amount of concern. While their plan was to make the best out of the inevitable, Hestia's memories were likely to have a much greater impact on Ranma than Hippolyta's had on her.
    How would Ranma react toward Hestia's dislike for violence? Hestia had been a very kind soul, and had also been reputed as being the best healer on Earth at the time. For that matter, how would he feel about her love for gardening and cooking? And she had been such an accomplished dancer, as well; her movements so graceful and full of life.
    More importantly, how would it affect his relationships with the other girls? While she and Phoebe could prevent the initial discovery of Ranma's memories being awakened, so the girls wouldn't act foolishly, he wouldn't have the benefit of being unaware, like them. She had been there to protect Hestia, as Hippolyta, so she knew very well of how little she had appreciated their behavior. And it didn't help that they didn't behave all that differently at the present time.
    Hestia had been mature beyond her years, so she hoped that it would help Ranma cope. She also hoped that it would stop him from doing something rash, such as making the situation more difficult for himself, or for anyone else that was involved. The last thing that they needed was to draw attention to themselves and have people asking questions, then investigate what was going on when the answers didn't satisfy them. In that regard she was worried about Nabiki, in particular: for being such a smart girl, she could be so thoughtless sometimes...
    And then, of course, there was her own relationship with Ranma. As Hippolyta, she had never been so close to someone as she had been with Hestia — in either life. Once she had finished high school, most of her friends had gone off to schools of higher learning, and — despite her workload at home now being halved by Ranma's mother — the times that she could go out and see them were few and far between.
    While Ranma had been receptive to her friendly behavior, she couldn't be sure that it would continue once he remembered his past life. After all, if he didn't like his past life, then their deep bond — in association with that past life — might also be left out in the cold, rather than accepted. While it would break her heart if that were to happen, she would understand.
    In the end, she could only wait for Phoebe to finish and hope for the best.

    Twelve-year-old Hestia took Hippolyta's hand and drew it closer to herself, which evoked a wince from the person who she now considered to be her big sister (which was an affectionate term that Amazons used when addressing someone that they cared about deeply). She looked over the burns that covered her forearm before she held her other hand over them and cast a healing spell. Her hand glowed white, and began to bathe the burns with its warm and gentle light.
    Hippolyta shifted in her seat uncomfortably. "It itches."
    "That means it's working," Hestia replied, and smiled with amusement. "Just be patient; it'll be over before you know it."
    Hippolyta sighed. "I don't understand. Why is this allowed to happen? Should princesses be allowed to attack one another in this way?"
    "There are many reasons," Hestia responded, who released a sigh of her own. "One of them is that the kingdoms of Earth fear the power of the Moon Kingdom and its many sailor senshi, so they have all agreed to be unified and marshal their strength, in order to discourage any hostile action. No matter what the contention, they must appear to be friendly. As far as anyone is concerned, what my peers and I are doing is nothing more than children acting like children. Our parents will stand by and hope that what's in their best interests will come about, but will neither openly encourage nor discourage their behavior."
    Hippolyta took a moment to digest that information. "Do you think there's anything to justify their fear, concerning the Moon Kingdom?"
    Hestia snorted. "I doubt it. From what I understand, the queen of the Moon Kingdom had — some centuries ago — helped to seal away a great evil called Titan, who had caused an untold amount of death and destruction. Unless something was left out of the account, I assume that they fear the Moon Kingdom for the same reason they do anything else that could potentially threaten the security of their comfy lifestyles."
    When Hestia finished healing the burns on Hippolyta's arm, she asked to see the other arm and proceeded to take care of the burns on that one, too. A companionable silence fell upon them, until Hestia had finished healing her friend.
    "At least prince Endymion appears to be a likeable fellow," Hippolyta offered.
    Hestia nodded her head in agreement, though reluctantly. "I suppose. I might have been more interested if being engaged to him wasn't so troublesome. Unfortunately, he's the most desirable prince among the kingdoms, being that he's both handsome and from the Golden Kingdom, whose domain lies in Elysium."
    "At least that explains why your parents arranged for me to be your lady-in-waiting," Hippolyta reasoned. "If the other princesses are willing to go so far as to attempt assassination, then your parents must be very ambitious."
    "My parents will jump at any good opportunity, if they happen to see one," Hestia replied, her head bowed. "Unfortunately for me, while working like a common domestic worker had made me an embarrassment to them, it had endeared me to the people. Word eventually reached Kronos, who thought that I would be a good match for his son. The rest, as they say, is history."
    Then she closed her eyes and clenched her fists. "Of course, considering the fact that Endymion is three years my senior, and that all eligible princesses had been born within a year of one another, I wouldn't be surprised if every one of our parents had intentionally given birth to daughters, with the hope that we would be married to prince Endymion one day."
    "After all," she continued, her voice becoming strained, "it would be a very unlikely coincidence for all of us to be born female so close together without the aid of magic. And if magic had been involved, then there must have been a reason; especially the three of the five couples who had no heirs or a single male heir at the time. To not prioritize a male heir is simply unheard of, so what other reason could there be...?"
    That earned her a hug from Hippolyta, and she reciprocated. However, what Hippolyta could not have known was how much she envied her and her tribe at that moment, as she imagined a life where she moved from one place to another, in the pursuit of training one's body and mind in the martial way. She wouldn't have to worry about politics, having so much of her life dictated, nor having so many gender-derived restraints. She wished...

    Thirteen-year-old Hestia took her time in reaching her parents, who awaited her on their thrones. She could hear her heels reverberate throughout the great hall like thunder, which she wouldn't have noticed had they been holding court. Instead, save for her parents and a guest, the great hall was devoid of persons both great and small.
    When she drew close enough, she noticed a small figure sitting before the dais. It appeared to be a cat, though she wondered why her parents would invite one to this affair, seeing as they were kept by the servants as mousers. When she saw the crescent moon symbol on the cat's forehead, however, she realized — with some foreboding — that she wasn't going to like this meeting. While the cat's presence could potentially lead to something good, the taint of her parents' involvement made her doubtful of such an outcome.
    When she was at a proper distance from her parents, she stopped and curtsied. "Father, mother."
    "Daughter," her father intoned, serious as always, "visiting us today is an emissary from the Moon Kingdom, Phoebe. She speaks on the behalf of her queen, concerning a matter that is relevant to our interests."
    She gave a curtsy for their small guest. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
    Phoebe bowed her head respectfully. "Likewise, princess Hestia."
    Hestia returned her attention to her parents. "May I ask what matter this is about?"
    Her father nodded his head toward Phoebe, who turned to regard her once more before saying, "My queen desires peace between the moon and the Earth. As a gesture toward that end, she has instructed me to show your people what is required to give birth to your own sailor senshi. The four guardian sailor senshi will be a part of the process that determines who becomes the sailor senshi of the Earth, to demonstrate a collaborative effort between our peoples. However, the decision will ultimately be made by the Earth itself, and whoever the people of Earth choose to undergo the process by which the sailor senshi of the Earth will be determined."
    She had a sinking feeling in her stomach. The prospect of having more power in the family, such as it could be attained, would not be something that her parents would pass up. It probably never even occurred to them that they could have been satisfied with their daughter marrying the prince of the Golden Kingdom, something that already caused her enough problems with the other royal and noble families throughout the world — and with four princesses, in particular. To take part in this new development between the kingdoms was akin to making a death wish, as far as she was concerned.
    She did her best to suppress her anger as she addressed her father. "Am I to assume that you are arranging for me to become a candidate?"
    "Naturally," came her father's unconcerned reply.
    "I refuse," she stated, which drew a curious look from the Moon Kingdom's emissary.
    Her father looked at her angrily, and raised his voice as he said, "Who said anything about there being a choice?"
    She glared at her father with contempt. "Yes; how silly of me to think otherwise."

    Hestia knew that, with the notable exception of five young princesses (which included herself), everyone on Earth was forbidden from having contact with the Moon Kingdom. However, she was sure that the exception would only lead to more tension between the two worlds, rather than peace. In fact, it could even undo the peaceful relations between the kingdoms of Earth, too.
    That was why she was out in the garden, in the middle of the night, to make sure that prince Endymion and princess Serenity weren't disturbed or — more importantly — discovered by the wrong people. She believed that love would be the most likely path that would lead to peace between the Earth and the moon, not the power of a sailor senshi who would no doubt be used to try and conquer the other kingdoms.
    The arrangement had been an easy one to make. One day princess Serenity had confided in her about her feelings for the prince, so she had offered her a way to meet with him clandestinely. The princess had been unsure, at first, since she was engaged to him. However, after explaining her lack of interest for said engagement, the princess had jumped at the chance to meet him. The prince, being the nice guy that he was, had accepted her feelings on the matter, and had been willing to see the smitten princess of the Moon Kingdom.
    She was glad that she had done it, because they seemed so compatible as to be destined for each other. One day she hoped to find someone special to call her own, too. However, as things stood, that seemed impossible. One might think a princess' life a fantasy, but — from personal experience — she knew that princesses and servants had a lot more in common than anyone would care to admit, whether or not they were the princess or the servant.
    Her musings were cut short when a sphere of light appeared in front of her, only a short distance away. When the light winked away, the moon princess' four guardian sailor senshi were revealed amidst the sparkling motes of light that had been left behind by their mode of transportation; and they didn't appear to be all that pleased about something. She could easily guess what their problem was, without even considering how their gazes were leveled upon her.
    "Hestia," said their leader, Venus, "this has to stop."
    Hestia arched an eyebrow. "You would stand in the way of love?"
    Venus didn't know how to reply to that, so Mercury responded in her stead. "It isn't that. Haven't you thought about the repercussions if this were to get out?"
    "Yeah," Jupiter added. "What you're doing is foolish, and could jeopardize our efforts for achieving peace."
    "Then you should help me keep it a secret until the time is right to reveal their relationship," Hestia replied, who crossed her arms in defiance. "It's a lot better than leaving your princess to pine away for a guy who has to marry another girl, whom — I might add — isn't even interested in him."
    Mars glared at her. "If this has anything to do with convincing us to find you unfavorable..."
    "Of course not," came Hestia's soft reply, her expression turning sad. She turned her back on the four guardian sailor senshi. "It's not something that you are likely to understand. It's true that I do not wish to become the sailor senshi of the Earth, but I have no desire to play such games with people. If you find what I'm doing to be unfavorable in your eyes, then that would simply be a fortuitous byproduct."
    Silence followed her words, so she quietly added, "Leave them their love. Don't take it away from them."

    Fourteen-year-old Hestia knelt over the body of the battered and bloody Hippolyta, feeling strangely serene. A part of her absently suspected that what she felt was shock, but she didn't have the wherewithal to care. Her mind was having enough trouble trying to comprehend the fact that the most important person in her life had been taken away from her.
    And if that hadn't been bad enough, the world around her had fallen into chaos. She didn't quite understand how it had come about, except that it might have had something to do with the dark clouds that had been gathering on the horizon in the past few days, and the many large, black monoliths that had been spotted growing out of the ground in their wake. All that she knew for sure was that anyone with a weak mind, or a wavering heart, had succumbed to bloodlust and a desire to destroy the Moon Kingdom or each other. And the person who seemed to be behind it...
    When she had heard the commotion, of what sounded like a great throng of people on the move, she had been on the lookout for another of Endymion's and Serenity's secret rendezvous. Before she could reach them, she had heard Endymion shout, "Stop it! Hate and war will get us nowhere!"
    What she saw, when she had arrived on the scene, had been shocking: her own cousin, Beryl, had slain Endymion. Then Serenity's guardian sailor senshi had appeared, and Venus had moved quickly to cut down Beryl with her sword. Serenity, by then, had taken Endymion's sword and had used it to commit suicide. It had all happened so fast, and seemed so absurd, that she'd had trouble rationalizing what she had witnessed. She had almost missed the appearance of something dark and evil above her cousin, which had proceeded to attack the moon princess' guardian sailor senshi. And behind it, either in thrall or support, had been Endymion's own guardians.
    Hippolyta had reached her, by then, since she had always been nearby when she needed her. She had led her away, back to the castle, but seeing parts of it up in flames made it apparent that it wouldn't be a safe place to retreat to. Not knowing where else to go, Hippolyta had suggested going to her tribe, whose current settlement was about four days away on foot — if they hurried, that is. Fortunately, they had been able to shave a day away from that estimate by teleporting to an Amazon training ground that Hippolyta had known would be within the range of her ability to reach.
    Unfortunately, among the people who had been following Beryl were the four princesses that had always found the time to make life more difficult for her, and they had seen and followed them. They had been able to follow the trail of her teleportation spell with their own, and had attacked with a savagery and intensity that they had never shown before.
    She hadn't been able to do much to fight back or protect herself, since teleporting required a lot of energy. The one thing that she and Hippolyta had going for them was that their attackers had attacked themselves when they saw the opportunity to do so, though it hadn't been enough of a boon after all had been said and done. She and Juno had been the only ones left standing, though Juno had collapsed before she could reach her, from a fatal wound that had been delivered by one of the other princesses.
    And now she was alone; well and truly alone. Her own injuries would probably be fatal, if they weren't tended to, but she couldn't motivate herself to do it. All that she could do was gather Hippolyta into her lap and hold onto her tightly, as if her life depended on it. Of course, as things were, her life depended on letting go and taking care of herself.
    She didn't know how much time had passed by the time she had come to a decision. She gently placed Hippolyta's body back on the ground and stood up, then proceeded to stumble around due to a bout of dizziness. She struggled to stay upright as she made her way to a nearby spring, and imagined Serenity's final act as she did so, to give her the strength to make it.
    Once she was standing over it, she couldn't help recalling what Hippolyta had told her about the training ground. Whenever the springs were in use, they would use the magic in the water to place a curse on them, so that those who fell into them during training would become something embarrassing, in order to give them an incentive to improve themselves. When the Amazons were finished using the training ground, they would clear the established curses on the springs, so that the likelihood of someone getting cursed while they weren't in use would be small. And if the teachers were satisfied with a student's progress, they would remove their curse before they left. If not...
    She felt tears running down her cheeks. Soon she would join her big sister, instead of merely being reminded of her. Falling into the water would ensure that her bleeding wounds would continue to bleed until she died. Failing that, she would be too weak to keep her head above water, and she would drown.
    Once she closed her eyes, she allowed herself to fall forward. The cool water soon enveloped her, and she welcomed its embrace. Idly, she noticed that the magic in the spring was reacting to her presence. She opened her eyes and peered into the water, even as her vision began to dim, and she hoped that someone else would have better luck at being a princess.

Chapter 3

    When Ranma opened her eyes, she saw that Kasumi was sitting across from her with a look of concern on her face. With the most recent memory of her past life still fresh in her mind, she lunged for the older girl without thinking, hugged her tightly, and began to sob into her bosom. The cat that she had knocked aside, in order to cross the distance between them, hadn't even been registered by any of her senses.
    Phoebe watched as Kasumi held Ranma and caressed her back in soothing motions, in addition to giving softly-whispered assurances. She knew that Hestia and Hippolyta had been close, but the former's sobbing didn't sound like those belonging to a happy reunion. Her sensitive, experienced ears perceived a lot of pain.
    While Kasumi tried to console the apparent girl within her arms, while also managing to hide her discomfort at having so much ice being pressed into her back at the same time, she worried about what had happened. Neither Ranma nor Hestia had been the type to break down and cry in someone's arms; yet, here they were, as one person, doing just that. It was so unlike Hestia, who could smile and forge ahead, leaving her troubles behind her. It was the same for Ranma and his usual happy-go-lucky approach to life, as if everything was bound to sort itself out if given enough time.
    However, since Hippolyta had died before Hestia, Kasumi had no idea what had befallen the princess afterward. At the very least, she hoped that her last moments alive had only been traumatic: because she'd hate to think that the cause of Ranma's breakdown had been due to an underlying problem that had developed over time, rather than something transient. She would never be able to forgive herself if the hole that was currently showing in the redhead's facade had actually been the result of a crumbling foundation. To her own way of thinking, she would consider missing such a thing to be criminal negligence on her part.
    When Ranma's sobs finally abated, and her body relaxed within Kasumi's embrace, her mind was still working on overdrive. Not only did her mind have to sort and reconcile her new memories, but it had to subdue a countless number of reactions for later, as the lives of two different people stared back at each other in an act that reflected their differences and similarities. There were just too many things that needed to be dealt with — both big and small — for her to handle all of them right then and there.
    Once Ranma had been silent and unmoving for a while, Kasumi thought it best to try and communicate with her. Not only so she could find out how she was doing, but also to avoid certain people from seeing them in such a position and making matters worse, should they tarry for too long.
    Her voice was soft and gentle when she spoke. "Ranma? How are you feeling?"
    Ranma's belated response was muffled by Kasumi's blouse. "Why?"
    "Because I care," Kasumi replied, who was worried by the question.
    "No," came the response, before Ranma drew back so she could look into the older girl's eyes. "I meant: why did you do this?"
    Kasumi hid her relief with a sympathetic expression. "Because you were showing signs of remembering your past life, anyway. Considering the circumstances, we decided that it would be best to awaken your memories under controlled conditions. This way the others won't know that you remember."
    Ranma grimaced, as if something particularly sour had been introduced to her palate. She had recalled a rather unpleasant memory from her past life, regarding four princesses and how they had reacted when they had learned about her being a candidate for the right to become the sailor senshi of the Earth. While she knew that she could handle such behavior again, she was neither of the mind or mood to deal with it.
    In the end, all that she could do was sigh and say, "I understand."
    Then she became nervous, as a thought occurred to her. "Say... Phoebe wouldn't happen to be present, would she?"
    Kasumi nodded her head in reply.
    Ranma closed her eyes and calmed her nerves. "Phoebe?"
    "Yes?" Phoebe replied.
    "I'm still not interested in becoming the sailor senshi of the Earth," Ranma stated. "Don't even think of trying to convince me otherwise."
    Kasumi exchanged a look with Phoebe, one that said, "See?"
    "I've already promised that I wouldn't bring it up," Phoebe muttered in reply. "But I still have to ask: are you sure? Really sure? As you know, this does involve more than just personal matters."
    Ranma took her time to consider her answer before she opened her eyes and resolutely said, "I have my reasons."
    Phoebe bowed her head and sighed in defeat. "So be it, then."
    As Ranma rose to her feet, Kasumi noted that she did it with a poise that hadn't been present in her movements before — not in her current incarnation, at least. And, once she stood upright, she held herself like a princess, rather than as a martial artist. Such a sight was why the redhead's next words surprised her enough to not have the presence of mind to follow her lead and stand up herself.
    "I need some hot water," Ranma stated, seemingly to herself.
    She made to leave the dojo, to fulfill her own desire, when — after a few steps — she stopped and looked down at the forearm that was still encased in ice. With a sheepish look on her face, she used magic to dispel the ice into water vapor. She did it with an ease that only came with continued practice, as if she hadn't been a different person only moments before. That she didn't seem to give a second thought toward the action only served to reinforce that illusion.
    Once Ranma was gone, Kasumi shared a worried look with Phoebe, who didn't know what to say. She hadn't known Hestia nearly as well as Hippolyta had, and knew even less about Ranma, so she had no idea what the cursed boy's current behavior could mean. She'd like to think that he hadn't changed much, if he was still willing to return to a male body once again, but that observation did little to put aside her own concerns for him.
    And so they began to discuss how they would handle the situation from then onward, now that Ranma was aware of his past life while the other girls were left unaware of said awareness. Not only did they have to keep his awakening a secret, but they would need to figure out how to treat him since they were now unsure regarding the location of his comfort zones, what with having the memories and experiences of another person added to his own and all.

    As Ranma made her way through the breezeway that connected the dojo to the house, she made a valiant effort to not succumb to the numerous thoughts that vied for her attention. Some unsavory revelations had made themselves known to her already, and she wanted to find a private place before she confronted them, in addition to any others that she may realize.
    To say that her life had just become more complicated would be an understatement greater in size than the Great Wall of China. And, like the Great Wall, more complications were added than they were removed, as if to protect her from having an easier life. At one time she thought that things couldn't get any worse, but the latest complication certainly proved otherwise.
    She had encountered and endured a lot of strange and outrageous things throughout her short life (especially as of late), but nothing compared to being a reincarnated princess from a kingdom long lost to the annals of history. Not only had said princess abhorred violence, but she had been very accomplished at many things that she considered to be girly in nature. Her only consolation was that she hadn't been quite like Kasumi — not that there was anything wrong with Kasumi, of course: it just wasn't the kind of person that she wanted to be.
    When she entered the house, her thoughts centered on the open doorway ahead of her, which led into the kitchen. She paused and listened in, and heard the faint sound of someone shuffling around inside. Since she wasn't ready to encounter certain people, and she couldn't make out who it was without risking a peek, she decided to wait until she was sure that the kitchen was unoccupied. She wasn't yet prepared to deal with the memories that would no doubt be aroused into the forefront of her mind by her parents, much less those concerning Akane.
    However, her plan had to be put aside when she heard a familiar voice address her. "Ranma?"
    Not too much further down the hallway stood Nabiki, at the base of the staircase. Her hand still rested on the banister while she calmly awaited a response, showing no sign of being the somewhat-spooked girl who had spoken to her about Akane's behavior only a week prior.
    Her eyes drifted down to Nabiki's pants, an unobtrusive detail that managed to spark memories of the past week, of seeing her wearing nothing below the waist that did not completely cover her legs. While she knew that Nabiki wore pants often enough, wearing tights was very uncommon for her; and now she always wore tights with her school uniform, in addition to always wearing pants outside of school.
    Now that she knew of Akane's past life as Juno, what she had done to her sister had become obvious. The problem was that, should she undo what had been done, she risked exposing the fact that she remembered being Hestia. While she was no longer engaged to Endymion, or in a position to become the sailor senshi of the Earth, she was sure that the other girls would have other reasons for treating her like an unwanted presence. And her relationship with Akane was already on the rocks, as it was.
    In the end, she knew that she couldn't overlook Nabiki's plight just so she could avoid having a problem of her own. She wasn't sure if that was the Hestia side of her talking, but she knew that — behind the middle Tendo's intransigent exterior — there was a girl before her who lived in the fear of having something humiliating being exposed. One does not cover up what they do not care about, after all. And there was no telling how she would deal with it, should she become exposed, since she was usually on top of things instead of being at the wrong end of the rope during a tug of war.
    With a mental sigh of resignation, she made her way over to Nabiki. She was probably hoping for something good to come out of her investigation, anyway. Of course, while she wasn't going to be much wiser about what was going on, after their business was concluded, she would at least be able to appreciate showing off her legs to the world once again.
    "Let's speak in your room," she suggested, once she met up with her. "I think you'll want to know what I've learned."
    Nabiki nodded her head mutely and led the way. While she didn't expect to learn anything that would solve her problem, she at least hoped to learn something that would allow her to get back at Akane in some way. Having to live with what had been done to her was sheer torture, and she wasn't about to just lie down and take it. Whether she was her sister or not didn't matter: she was the kind of girl who gave two tits for every tat, no matter who they were.
    Just after Nabiki closed her bedroom door behind Ranma and herself, Akane entered the house through the front door. Rather than announce her presence, as she normally would, she slipped off her shoes in the genkan and entered quietly. She didn't want to end up trying to explain how she had become filthy and injured; especially since her attire showed no signs of experiencing the same treatment that her body had gone through.
    Since she wanted to get herself cleaned up, she knew what her first order of business would have to be. With that in mind, she went up to her room to get a change of clothes, since enough sweat and dirt had transferred from her skin to her current outfit, making the thought of wearing it again a disagreeable one. Once she had what she needed, she returned to the ground floor.
    Before she made her way to the bathroom, which required getting past the family room, she cast a spell that would make her blend in with her surroundings. No one would notice her passing by if they weren't paying enough attention, and even if they were able to catch some movement out of the corner of their eye she'd likely be far removed from where she had been, thus making it difficult for them to find and focus on the slight disturbance that the outline of her body would make as she moved.
    Once she made it to the bathroom, and closed the door behind herself, she breathed a sigh of relief and released her spell. It was always nice when a plan worked without a hitch. She only wished that she were as successful in other, more important matters: then she'd feel so much better about things, in general. As things were, however...
    It wasn't long before she found herself relaxing in the furo, feeling clean and renewed. Unfortunately, as her mind was wont to do when she wasn't focusing on anything in particular, it wandered toward a subject that quickly ruined her mood. She clenched her hands into fists as she recalled the fight that had inspired her to be where she now found herself.
    The result of the fight hadn't been surprising, but that made it no less disappointing and aggravating. She felt that she would make the best sailor senshi of the Earth, since her skills with elemental magic topped those of the others'. Their skills as martial artists shouldn't really matter — that's what she thought, at least. If that were the case, then she'd certainly have an advantage over the other girls, as far as that matter was concerned.
    Her face fell, and — with it — so did her eyes. She stared down at her lap, as obscured by steam as it was, knowing that — in many other ways — she couldn't compare to the other girls. They were better martial artists, better cooks, better swimmers, better at sewing, better... all around. As far as Ranma was concerned, she didn't have to worry about Kodachi attracting his attention, but in everything else...
    She shook her head, and tried to clear away the self-pity that had overcome her. She tilted her head back and gazed up at the ceiling, a weary and sad expression making its home on her face. Some tears gathered at the corners of her eyes as she considered her future prospects, now that — in all likelihood — there was no more time to convince any of the other girls to give up on becoming a sailor senshi before the next stage in the rite of succession began.
    To cheer herself up, she tried to look at it in a more positive light: at least Hestia — or Ranma, as it were — was out of the running. Had that not been the case, then her present uncertainty, regarding her chances of succeeding, would have been the certainty of her eventual failure. It was fortunate that she wouldn't have to worry about him, because she wouldn't have been able to do what Juno and the other girls had done to force Hestia's withdrawal in the past. The times were different, and she was different; she felt sick and disgusted with her former self just by thinking about it.
    So long as she didn't have to worry about Ranma, she felt that she could endure whatever the end result would be: because she didn't think that she would be able to handle being surpassed by the redhead in both lives. She was hoping to impress the pigtailed boy, after all; to the extent that he would be willing to properly admit his love to her, and — in doing so — really commit himself to their relationship. That she had a problem with admitting her own feelings, and that she could also be the first one to profess her love, was not a matter of consequence.

    Nabiki's bed was directly across from the door, and that's where she strode to after closing it. Once there, she turned about to face Ranma, sat down, crossed one leg over the other, then leaned back on her hands. Even though one of the legs of her pants had been pulled up to mid-calf as a result, she wore dark socks that were long enough to cover what it no longer did.
    Ranma moved further into the room, by only a few steps, and chose to remain standing. Sitting next to Nabiki on the bed, or in the swivel chair that was in front of Nabiki's desk, wouldn't be sensible for what she had in mind to do. She studied the girl who sat on the bed before her, wondering what — if anything — she was hiding behind her calm and self-assured mask.
    "So," Nabiki began, "what did you find out?"
    "I found out what Akane did to you," Ranma replied, with a serious expression on her face. Nabiki didn't seem to betray how she felt about her statement, although her posture might have stiffened a bit; it was hard for her to tell.
    "Oh?" Came Nabiki's calm response.
    Ranma nodded her head. "You've been covering up your legs all week."
    "My, my," Nabiki said, who smirked. "Are you telling me that you've missed the sight of my legs? I'm flattered."
    Ranma frowned. "You're not going to distract me with that, Nabiki."
    Nabiki shrugged her shoulders. "You can't blame a girl for trying."
    A silence fell upon the two occupants of the room. The two girls stared at each other, trying to measure the other up. Ranma had been calling upon Hestia's experience for this confrontation, seeing as her usual Ranma-self wasn't up to the task. She must have done fairly well, because Nabiki noticed the difference.
    Nabiki narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "You're like them, aren't you?"
    "If by, 'like them,' do you mean to say that I'm 'different?'" Nabiki replied with a single, no-nonsense nod of her head. "Then you're right."
    Nabiki gripped her comforter tightly. "Who are you, then?"
    Ranma could tell that Nabiki was a bit scared, even though she hid it well. Not only did she have to worry about being alone with (and in close proximity to) an apparent stranger, but said apparent stranger seemed to know about her condition — a condition that she didn't want anyone to find out about, for whatever rational or irrational reason that she may have had for keeping it hidden. Obviously, she wasn't going to get anywhere with the middle Tendo daughter until she gave her enough of a reason to lower her defenses.
    She gave a friendly smile and spoke her next words in a gentle tone. "I'm a friend."
    Nabiki snorted. "And I'm supposed to believe you? Just like that?"
    "Of course not," Ranma replied, seemingly amused. "But ask yourself this: would you rather take a risk by accepting my offer to remove the curse that was placed upon your legs, or would you prefer sending me away and hope that another opportunity for a cure will present itself?"
    She could tell that Nabiki was becoming frustrated, if the white that had developed around her knuckles were any indication. It was understandable, what with having to decide between trusting an apparent stranger (who wore a familiar body) and whether she could endure her curse for even a moment longer.
    Finally, a look of resignation began to show itself within Nabiki's eyes, though her voice remained firm when she spoke. "Fine. I'll allow you to cure me, but you better not try anything funny."
    Ranma held back a smile of amusement when she heard the implied threat, since she knew that Nabiki wouldn't be able to stop her from doing whatever she wanted to do. Not that she would do anything untoward to Nabiki, of course. She knew that the other girl was just trying to reassure herself about her own safety, and the feeling of being in control of the situation was just one of many ways in which people could handle distressing situations.
    Instead, she simply nodded her head in understanding and stepped forward. Once she was standing in front of her, she lowered herself to one knee and said, "Could you uncross your legs, please?"
    After Nabiki complied, she reached her hand out until it hovered over one of the girl's legs, where the thigh met the hip. After using a bit more focus than Hestia would have needed to use, her hand began to glow with a soft, white light.
    "Feeling prickly and ticklish sensations are normal," she informed Nabiki, whose body was more rigid than it appeared to be, "so don't feel alarmed by it."
    With that said, she slowly moved her hand down the length of Nabiki's leg. When she reached the instep of her foot, she proceeded to work on the other leg in the same manner. Nabiki had squirmed with obvious discomfort during that time, though she said nothing.
    Once she was finished, she stood up and offered her hand to Nabiki, who hesitantly accepted it. After she helped the older girl to her feet, she watched as she looked down at the floor and saw that there were some dark and thick clumps of body hair gathering around her feet. There wasn't much, however, since the cut of her pants pressed the now-unattached hair on her thighs to her skin, while the socks did the same for the hair on her calves.
    "Well, my work here is done," she announced, before turning a serious eye on Nabiki. "If Akane asks: I wasn't involved. Tell her that her curse must have worn off."
    Nabiki nodded her head dumbly. Her mind was awhirl with thoughts and questions about what was going on. To begin with, her sister, followed by the other girls that were interested in Ranma, had begun to act differently. And now the same could be said of the pigtailed girl standing before her. She even suspected that Kasumi had been affected in the same way, except she either hadn't changed much or did a better job of hiding whatever had changed about her. She was dying to know what was going on, in no small part due to how much money she might be able to make by selling the information.
    "Also," Ranma went on, in a much more serious tone, "I suggest not looking into this any further. While having the knowledge itself isn't dangerous, it can be used to threaten what they're trying to accomplish, and they are likely prepared to go as far as killing anyone who they feel might compromise what they're after." Placing emphasis on her next words, she added, "Whether that becomes the case or not, the fact is that I can't promise that I'll be there to save you if you don't take my words seriously and get into trouble with them. So consider very carefully what's more important to you the next time you feel the need to find out what's going on."
    Nabiki did just that. All it took were the memories of the past week, of having to deal with and hide legs that were so hairy as to be grotesque, to dissuade any future attempt to find out what was going on. The experience had been more stressful than she would ever like to admit, and she didn't want to go through anything like it again, much less something potentially worse. There were worse things than death, after all.
    Ranma regarded Nabiki with a weary expression and continued from where she had left off. "It's not as bad as it sounds, but they're all vying for the same thing and secrecy is a very important part of what they're after. And they're very... determined, for lack of a better word."
    "Anyway," she said, as she turned away to leave, "I need to go. Stay out of trouble, alright?"
    Before Ranma could open the door, Nabiki found that she couldn't hold her tongue regarding another matter. "Wait!"
    When the redhead paused to regard her, from over her shoulder, she asked, "Who are you? Where's Ranma?"
    Ranma failed to withhold a wince before she could turn her attention away from Nabiki, in order to prevent her face from betraying how she felt inside. As she stared at the door, she found it difficult to answer a question that she had been waiting to ask herself once she found the time and place to do it. How she felt about the question wasn't helped by the fact that the easy part pertained to answering it without giving anything of significance away.
    "I don't know," she replied, her voice more subdued than she had intended. "I'm still Ranma... I guess. I just haven't had the opportunity to figure things out, yet. When I do, maybe I'll tell you who I am."
    Before Nabiki could form a response (if she so desired), Ranma opened the door and stepped out of the room. As soon as she closed the door behind her, she leaned her back against it and tried to hold back the tears that threatened to escape. She hadn't been ready to face the question that Nabiki had posed, much less what it brought to mind in relation to matters beyond her identity.
    "Damn it," she whispered, not knowing who or what to lash out at for the latest complication that had been added to her life.
    Back in the bedroom, Nabiki stared at her door, wondering about the answer that she had received. Since she didn't know what to think about it, she shrugged and decided to take care of her own problem. Now that she could help it, she didn't want to spend any more time with the hair on her legs than she had to. It was her hope that she really had been cured, because the hair had always grown back after every attempt that she had made to remove it.
    She took her pants off first, then her socks. She was overcome by immense relief when, for the first time since last week, she was able to see the skin of her legs without having to part a thick, curly mass of man-hair. What few hairs that continued to cling to her legs were brushed off easily enough and joined the rest that were on the floor, inside of her pants and socks.
    Rather than concern herself with the mess that was at her feet, or covering up the lower half of her body, she allowed herself to fall backward, onto her bed. She spread out her arms and began to stare up at the ceiling, lost in thought, but ultimately wondering what she was going to do with what little information she had learned, regarding what was going on.
    As disappointed as she was by the thought, she decided to follow Ranma's advice. While she didn't think that Akane would ever try to kill her, she had already experienced an attempt on her life by Kodachi, Ukyo and Shampoo, back when she had been acting as Ranma's fiancée. Akane had never been the type to do anything to her, in return for the things that she was known to do, before she had changed. If she was now willing to give her a curse that was bad enough to drive a lesser girl to suicide (if given enough time to despair), then she'd rather not find out what the others would be capable of, since they had already been willing to kill her before they had changed.
    "This sucks," she thought. There was something interesting going on around her — possibly something big — and she could neither sate her curiosity or make money off of it. Neither could she get back at Akane for what she had done to her, because she didn't know the new Ranma well enough to rely on another intervention.
    Of course, in the end, how she felt about it was preferable to being cursed.

Chapter 4

    After Ranma had been reunited with his male body once more, he had spent the better part of the morning thinking alone, in the room that he shared with his parents. He could have stayed there for the rest of the day, but he hadn't felt like attracting any unwanted attention to himself. So, after noon had come and gone, he had decided to spend the rest of the day in the dojo, where he had picked up his thoughts from where he had left off, either during or between the time that he had spent on practicing his forms.
    At the moment, however, he was deep in meditation. Not only so he could recover from his recent physical exertions, but also so he could review everything that he had been thinking about. Plus, it would help him to keep his emotions under control: because there were a number of things that he was — to put it mildly — unhappy about.
    The most upsetting realization, perhaps, had been the amount of irony in his current life, when comparing it to his former one. Hestia had been a bird living in a gilded cage, trapped by the circumstances surrounding her birth — and in more ways than one. Not only had she been contained by her royal bloodline and the interests of her parents, but she had also been held back by her gender. Now, as Ranma (and in being a Saotome), he was expected to marry a Tendo. In addition to that, his father had raised him to fulfill a certain purpose — one that was no doubt supposed to be more beneficial to his father — rather than allowing him to decide what kind of life he wanted to pursue. And, if that hadn't been bad enough, even his gender had been used to ensure that he would not stray from the path that had been set before him.
    Hestia had envied the freedoms that Hippolyta had experienced while among those of her tribe, though she had never made that apparent to the other girl. She had sometimes found herself wondering what it would be like to be as privileged as a man, and being able to roam across the land — be it wild or otherwise. Even the thought of learning martial arts, had it been the only way to achieve what she desired, would not have turned her away from that dream. While Ranma had essentially achieved what she had desired, he had still led a lonely life at the hands of parents who had seen him as little more than an extension of themselves, as a tool. He couldn't even escape from his gender without forfeiting his life, because he had to achieve his mother's image of what a man was supposed to be.
    And if that wasn't enough, he not only had several girls that were interested in him (that, in another life, would have killed Hestia at the first opportunity), but they had a number of others in love with them, who were willing to kill him because they somehow thought that it would endear their beloveds to them. And, of course, they didn't care how many times, or in how many ways, he said that he didn't care about their love interests in the way that they assumed he did.
    Aside from all of the irony, he had realized something that was just as upsetting, if not more so: his feelings for Akane didn't compare to Hestia's feelings for Hippolyta, and she hadn't even had romantic feelings for her. Even his feelings for Kasumi, in the here and now, seemed to be more discernible, more meaningful. Of course, it didn't help that he was now aware of Akane's past life, and that what she had done to her sister, Nabiki, had been very Juno-esque of her.
    He didn't know how he was going to handle his relationship with Akane. Before his past life as Hestia had been awakened, he had almost been certain of his love for her. Now he was almost certain that they had nothing special going on between them. Not from his end, anyway: since he still had no exact idea regarding her own feelings on the matter. And he also had no way of knowing how her knowledge of Hestia would affect whatever feelings that she might happen to have for him.
    Then there was the revelation regarding something that he and Hestia had in common: depression. Both he and she had hidden it from others well, even from the people that they were the closest to. Even before his life had really become rife with complications, he had been depressed. That's why he had felt like asking whether he had been happy or not, when Ryoga had threatened to take away his happiness: because he hadn't known whether or not he had been happy at the time.
    While Hestia had been close to Hippolyta, as well as to many of the servants who had worked in the palace, she had never recovered from her parents' neglect. Neither had she ever accepted her lot in life, and being unable to pursue her own dreams had all but taken what it meant to live away from her. She had never shared how she felt about her life with Hippolyta, in part because she didn't want her doing anything for her sake, that would likely — and quite literally — lead to a royal mess; not to mention ruin the good relations between her kingdom and her tribe. That, and talking about it wouldn't have changed anything. Many other people had been worse off than her, besides.
    Ranma had moved around too much to create any strong ties with anyone. By the time he had realized how futile it would be to bother trying, he had fallen into the habit of not taking anyone's feelings seriously. Sometimes he went so far as to tease and prank people, reasoning that he wouldn't want anyone to be attached to him when it came time for his inevitable departure. He had to accept that martial arts came before friends, and that he had a father that liked to make his life difficult for him. If only he had known just how difficult: then he might have been able to avoid what had happened in China. As things stood, he had no reason to be happy, and all of the reasons to be depressed.
    That's why he didn't feel all that surprised about breaking down upon seeing Kasumi, after he had recalled Hestia's life. Both Hestia's love for Hippolyta, and how she had felt when she had died, hadn't compared in magnitude to anything that he had ever felt before — with the only exception being his fear of cats. When he had thought Akane dead, he hadn't known exactly how to feel about it, aside from a measure of sadness that had brought out his depression to the fore. Hippolyta's death had made Hestia feel so empty and meaningless, to the point where death had been preferable to living without her. He couldn't say that he would have felt the same, had Akane really died.
    On a less serious note, he now understood why his female body had felt normal and comfortable from the get-go: because it had actually been his body, once upon a time. For a long time he had worried about what it might mean for him to feel that way, because his upbringing had come with an emphasis on being male. However, he had to admit that it had also helped him to adjust to being a girl part of the time. The only problem was that it had made it too easy for him to not mind doing things as a girl, which made his protests about being a guy harder to sell; especially to himself. In fact, being a girl had come so naturally to him that he had never felt anything wrong about the reach of his attacks when he fought, until the difference between his male and female forms had been made glaringly obvious during his battle with Mousse.
    And now he had the memories to go along with the female body, and it had felt all too easy to act more like Hestia when he had been with Nabiki earlier. The issue with that, of course, was that his current life dictated that he be a man, whether he wanted to be one or not. Not only because being anything less than a man would get him killed, but because any reason that Hestia might have to live — aside from Hippolyta — was now gone, history. Her time — even if it had been cut short — had come to an end. As for what he would do with her baggage...
    What really did bother him about being a part-time girl, however, was how it had been made possible. He wasn't one to believe in destiny, but what were the chances of falling into the same cursed spring that his past self had fallen into? The last thing that he needed was yet another thing trying to control his life, and where it should go. He'd had enough of that in both lives. Furthermore, how would choosing to live the life of a girl — as a princess, sailor senshi or otherwise — do him any good in his present life, anyway?
    Suddenly, he was smacked upside the head, and a familiar voice had accompanied it, shouting, "An opening!"
    Although he flinched upon hearing the voice, what the blow to his head had set in motion in his body had managed to hide it. Still, it took him a bit longer to recover than normal, in preparation for who he would see when he looked over his shoulder. He leveled a glare at her when he did, since she was the person responsible for the dull throb that made itself known on one side of his head.
    "You left yourself wide open," Akane said, in a tone that suggested that she was the master and he the student. She then proceeded to place her hands on her hips. "Have you been moping around in here all day?"
    "I wasn't moping," he retorted, before he turned his head away from her, his nose raised. "Martial arts isn't all about throwing your weight around, you know. A berserk gorilla like you probably wouldn't understand."
    One of Akane's eyebrows began to tick. "Oh? Well, if you're so smart, then I guess you'll understand," she pulled out a mallet and brought it down on Ranma's head at the moment that she screamed, "this!"
    She wiped her hands of imaginary dirt as she looked down at Ranma, whose face was now well-acquainted with the floor. "I guess I was mistaken, because I wasn't able to get it through your thick skull. Anyway," she turned about and began to walk away, "dinner's ready, you jerk."
    Ranma grunted painfully in response. It hadn't been too hard for him to act like his usual self, but he certainly wished that his relief in being able to do so had been greater than the headache that he had gotten for his trouble. He couldn't help wondering if he could act any differently without giving the game away: because he was now stepping into the territory of a masochist with his latest stunt, now that he was both wiser and more mature than he had been in the past, and thus more aware of what he was doing.

    Dinner had been a quiet affair. Akane and Ranma had pointedly ignored each other, though that happened frequently enough. Neither the girls or the men had brought up any topics of interest, and seemed intent on finishing their meal so they could do other things. If not for the news playing on the television, it would have been quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
    Nodoka turned her head until her cheek met with her pillow, so she could look over at the sleeping form of her son. She could barely make him out from the scant amount of light that came in through the window. It saddened her that the sight could also describe her relationship with him: by being so close yet so far away, likened to a mountain that loses its defining features the farther one stood away from it.
    It hadn't been until their failure to wed her son to Akane that she had begun to see and understand her son's predicament. He was so manly that he made girls very possessive of him, which caused them to act very unladylike. And because they were unwilling to share him as a mistress, or with mistresses as the wife, he was left with the decision of who would become the lucky girl.
    Unfortunately, that meant that he had been caught between giri and ninjō, like many a fine man before him. He was unwilling to choose one of the girls lest he hurt the others' feelings, yet he was obligated to choose one of them in order to uphold honor. The decision would be a hard one to make, but making hard decisions was a part of what it was all about in regards to being a man.
    Of course, she knew of an alternative — and very manly — means of resolving the situation. She was giving her son time to realize what it was; although, considering the task that she had entrusted with her husband, she would have expected her son to have done it already. Surely her manly husband had provided a prime example of how to be as manly as he was...
    Still, she hoped that the waiting and worrying would all be worth it. She anticipated the day that her son would prove his manliness once and for all, as that would leave him less distracted for other things. There was a lot of time to make up for, after all, and she hadn't allowed herself to be separated from him for so long just so she could stand by and watch him.
    Unnoticed by her, on account of the darkness, was the troubled expression that had appeared on her son's sleeping face.

    In another ward of Tokyo, inside of the sailor senshi's control center (that was hidden underneath the Crown Game Center), a secret meeting between three guardian cats was taking place. Luna, the guardian cat of the moon, and Artemis, the guardian cat of Venus, were not at all pleased with Phoebe, the guardian cat of the Earth, for arranging a get-together so late at night, and at such short notice.
    Luna yawned. "Why did you need us at such a late hour?"
    "I apologize for my timing," Phoebe replied, who bowed her head apologetically to the two guardian cats who sat before her. "But this required secrecy, and the best way to avoid questions was to wait until the girls were asleep."
    Artemis nodded his head in agreement.
    "Has something happened?" Luna posed, sounding concerned.
    Phoebe slouched and released a tired sigh. "You could say that." Before she continued, she straightened her posture and adopted an air of seriousness. "Do you remember when I told you about Hippolyta?"
    Luna looked thoughtful. "You were confused about the reason behind her reincarnation."
    "We still don't understand why she was reincarnated," Artemis added.
    "As it turns out..." Phoebe paused, for dramatic effect. "There was a reason for her to be reincarnated."
    Artemis appeared to be intrigued. "Do tell."
    "Do you remember the boy that I mentioned during our first meeting, that all four of the Earth princesses are interested in?" Phoebe asked.
    Luna tilted her head ever-so-slightly, as she wondered where Phoebe's line of questioning was going to lead them. "I think so. He's the one with the acute fear of cats, right?"
    Phoebe nodded her head to confirm that Luna was correct.
    "What was his name, again?" Artemis wondered aloud, as he gazed upward in thought.
    Phoebe smiled a bit impishly. "His name is Ranma. The kanji of his name has a meaning that is similar to Hippolyta."
    Luna and Artemis exchanged a look, now that they had some idea of what Phoebe was getting at. She'd had no reason to mention the meaning of Ranma's name, or its relation to Hippolyta, unless it was a significant stepping stone toward whatever she was about to reveal to them.
    "And," Phoebe went on, "he has a Jusenkyo curse, just like Shampoo does."
    Artemis decided to take the bait, since Phoebe would say no more and appeared to enjoy leading them on. "What does he transform into?"
    Phoebe grinned. "A girl."
    Luna's eyes widened in shock. "You don't mean..."
    "I do," was Phoebe's response, whose demeanor had become serious once again. "When the girls told me to stay away from him, because of his fear, what they were really doing was making sure that I never saw his cursed form." Regret weighed her eyes down, until she was staring at the floor. "I should have known that something wasn't right, when they still used me to scare him away..."
    "What's done is done," Artemis said, who tried to take Phoebe's mind off of her apparent failure by adding, "though I wonder why the queen had sent Hestia forward with everyone else. She had once had ties with both Endymion and the rite of succession, but she had given up both."
    Luna looked thoughtful. "And even though we suspect that she had been forced to withdraw from the rite of succession, we know that she hadn't been interested, anyway."
    "Perhaps the queen knew something that we don't," Artemis reasoned.
    "That may be," Phoebe proposed. "Kasumi had told me that Hippolyta had died while trying to protect Hestia at Jusenkyo, during a time when it was not in use. That means that the springs would have been receptive to whoever or whatever fell into them, instead of projective. Had Hestia fallen into one, it would explain why the spring of young girl had held onto her physical identity, while her soul moved on. However, the chances of Ranma reuniting his soul with the body that he had born in a previous life..."
    Understanding dawned upon Luna's face. "One might think that a greater force is at work. Do you think...?"
    "That must be it," Artemis decided, before he turned his attention to Phoebe. "But is Ranma interested?"
    Phoebe sighed. "I'm afraid not."
    Artemis pointedly asked, "But you have an idea on how to get around that, don't you? Is that why our meeting needed to be a secret?"
    Phoebe gave a single nod of her head to confirm his suspicion. "That's right. I'd like for Ranma to meet the sailor senshi, without either side expecting it. That way there's no invite to turn down, and Ranma won't be upset with the sailor senshi for a trick that they had no part in playing."
    "So we alone will have to be the ones to take responsibility for what happens," Luna deduced, in a matter-of-fact manner. "We'll need a good excuse."
    Phoebe smiled sadly. "Don't worry. I have one."

    Ranma accompanied Akane during their walk to school, even though he had been reluctant to. He found it difficult to be around her because he was no longer the same person, and his newfound wisdom and maturity made it more of a hassle to act stupid and immature — like his usual self, as it were. That's why, as he nonchalantly walked along the fence that overlooked the canal, he was wondering if finding a middle ground would arouse any suspicion.
    When he glanced down at Akane, he saw that her expression, of someone being deep in thought, hadn't changed since they had left the house. She had seen Nabiki's legs at breakfast, so she was more than likely trying to figure out how her curse could have been dispelled. She would check him out every now and again, and he imagined that she was probably wondering about — and hoping against — the possibility of his involvement.
    If only to take Akane's mind off of what she was more than likely thinking about, he decided to join her on the ground and strike up a conversation. He figured that he might even be able to take the first step in changing their relationship. "Hey."
    Akane regarded him with a sideways glance. "What?"
    Ranma took a moment to make sure that his response wouldn't sound too unlike himself. "Do you ever get tired of being a violent chick?"
    Akane hit him in the back of the head with her school bag and shot back, "Do you ever get tired of being a jerk?"
    "I was just askin'," came Ranma's defensive reply, as he rubbed the back of his head. "And maybe I am."
    Akane looked confused. "'Maybe you are,' what?"
    "Tired of being a jerk," Ranma answered nonchalantly.
    Akane almost tripped over her own feet and fell when she heard that. After she recovered from the initial reaction to his words, she looked at her fiancé as if he'd grown a bunch of extra heads all over his body (because, at this point, only one extra head wouldn't have phased her).
    Ranma noticed her expression. "What?"
    Akane shook her head and returned to watching where she was going. "I just wasn't expecting you to say that." She spared him a brief, questioning look. "And are you being serious?"
    "Well," Ranma began, as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants, "considering everything we've been through, I realized that we probably should have had a better relationship than this."
    Akane gave a faint, absent nod, as she began to think about what had been said. "I guess so..."
    "Not that I really understand what the appeal is," Ranma continued, speaking on behalf of both Hestia and himself. "I mean, wanting to keep one person to yourself seems to cause nothing but trouble."
    Upon hearing that, Akane imagined him amidst all of the girls in his life, who appeared demure and subservient at his feet while he stood up and laughed in triumph. She didn't quite succeed in removing a growl from her voice when she next spoke. "Just what — exactly — are you trying to say?"
    Before Ranma could begin to explain, he felt himself being splashed by cold water. She stopped walking, turned around to see who had been responsible for it, and sighed when she saw the old lady with the ladle. She thought that she would have learned to avoid her by now, but there was no helping it whenever she was distracted by something.
    Akane, who stood nearby, was unsympathetic. "Is there a problem?"
    Ranma shook her head and rejoined Akane, who began to walk again.
    "Anyway," Ranma began, "I'd like for you to take a good look at me." She gestured toward her body, as a whole, with her hands. When Akane humored her, she said, "What if I'd really been a girl when I first arrived? Maybe we'd be good friends right now. Heck, maybe everyone could have been good friends."
    Akane was too taken aback to form a response. Even had she not been, she didn't know what to say. She thought that she had known her fiancé well enough, but it seemed that there was yet more to learn about the things that he thought and the reason for why he thought them.
    Ranma glanced over at Akane, to gauge her reaction, before she looked up at the sky and said, "To tell you the truth, I don't understand the whole marriage thing. I mean, while I was on my training trip, settling down with someone hadn't even crossed my mind. The old man never told me what he'd been training me for, so it never occurred to me that it'd have anything to do with marrying someone."
    It took Akane a moment to absorb everything that had just been said. She also reviewed their conversation as a whole, but she couldn't figure out what it all meant. However, with some possibilities in mind, she was almost afraid to ask, "So... what are you saying?"
    Ranma shrugged her shoulders. "I guess I'm saying that I'd be happy just having friends, y'know? I mean, even though we're engaged, has it really helped our relationship?"
    "Not really," Akane quietly admitted.
    Ranma placed her hand on Akane's shoulder and stopped walking, indicating that she should do the same. She looked up into the taller girl's eyes and earnestly said, "Why don't we forget about our engagement — for now — and work on being friends first?"
    At first shocked, Akane was able to recover quickly enough once she realized that Ranma wanted to salvage their engagement. Most people had the opportunity to get to know each other well before they made any commitments, after all. She hadn't been ready for an engagement, much less to a boy; and one that could become another girl, to boot. Not too long ago she had been willing to get married, but only on the condition that she appear to be doing it for her fiancé's sake (by holding the cure to his curse ransom), because her heart had still been uncertain. Getting married was a big decision, and Ranma could be such a jerk. He also tended to be oblivious about her feelings, untrustworthy, and came with a lot of baggage. Still, if they were able to lay down a good foundation with friendship, then maybe...
    She smiled and gave the girl before her an emphatic nod. "Okay! Let's be friends!"
    While Akane's mind was abuzz with optimistic thoughts, Ranma was wondering what she had hoped to accomplish with what she had just done. While she wasn't going to allow Akane's past life as Juno to get in the way of trying to become friends with her, the truth was that neither she nor Hestia had been all that interested in marriage. In fact, both of their arranged marriages had soured the idea. When it came time to take their relationship to the next level, she didn't know if she would be ready to go that far.
    Regardless of her concerns, she returned Akane's smile with one of her own. She'd figure something out when the time came to cross that bridge.

Chapter 5

    When the front gate of the school came into view, Ranma felt that something was off. It probably had something to do with the numerous students that were standing around while talking in hushed tones, and how they glanced at Akane and herself, but she also sensed something in the air — something familiar, and unwelcome.
    As if in response to her querying attentions, she saw Kuno leaving the school grounds at a breakneck speed, wielding a sword that glinted in the morning sunlight. He was coming toward her and Akane, of course, so they stopped walking and awaited his arrival. However, when he was close enough for her to make out his face, she had trouble containing her reaction, lest she make Akane aware that she knew more than what she should about what was happening.
    When she had been Hestia, Dysnomia had once tried to kill her by turning one of the palace guard into a berserker. She had used a magic draught that could send the entire body into overdrive, while also making them completely focused on one thought or idea. The result had been a faster and stronger man solely intent on killing her, while ignoring pain and injuries that would have brought most men to their knees.
    Seeing how Kuno's eyes were bulging and bloodshot, and how his nostrils flared above his bared and grinding teeth, she had no doubt that Kodachi had been able to find what she had needed for another one of those magic draughts. The problem with using it, however, was that death (caused by any of a number of vital organ failures) was a sure thing unless the person under the draught's influence were cured quickly enough. She had learned that the hard way when — as Hestia — she had been unable to learn how to cure the guard until it had been too late for him.
    It wasn't all that surprising that Kodachi would use it on her own brother. However, despite how much of a pain Kuno could be, that didn't warrant his death. Of course, if she wanted to save his life, then she would have to try and do it without Akane finding out that she knew more about what was going on than she should.
    Speaking of her fiancée, she looked askance and saw her tense and ready for a confrontation. It was all too likely that she had no real idea of what to expect, or that Kodachi had been responsible for it. Juno hadn't been present when Hestia's guard had attacked her, after all. And she doubted that Dysnomia had shared her plan with anyone, as she and Juno had only been allies against Hestia at the time, not friends.
    Just before Kuno could swing his steel-bladed sword, she pushed Akane aside even as she began to leap out of range. Or, so she had thought: because, following the arc of the sword's path, a wide, crescent-shaped vacuum blade had been born. She had been able to raise her legs over it in time, though it had been a close call. Fortunately, Akane had fallen after she had shoved her, so it had passed harmlessly overheard in her case.
    Of course, Akane was none too pleased about how she had been treated. She was already up and about to make her way toward their attacker. "What do you think you're doing!?"
    "Stay back, you idiot!" Ranma shouted, as she frantically dodged Kuno's deadly onslaught. "Can't you tell that something's wrong with him!?"
    Akane paused to take in the scene before her. Ranma was evading Kuno's various sword attacks with a skill that made her jealous, though she was able to focus on the fact that she wouldn't have fared very well in the same position. Well, she would have been made into mincemeat — in other words, dead. Kuno was rending apart the ground with his attacks, in addition to anything else above it within a distance of ten meters. While Ranma had not suffered any direct hits, her clothes were slowly but surely being turned into confetti.
    Also, once she was able to catch a good look at Kuno's face, she realized that something must have been making him behave as he was, in addition to increasing his fighting ability. There was no other explanation for why he would attack — much less try to kill — the two girls that he loved with such a ferocity.
    Still, she wasn't about to just stand around and watch; not when she could criticize her fiancée for calling her an idiot. "Are you sure that you don't need any help? At the rate you're going the neighborhood's going to be demolished."
    Ranma's look of concentration soured a bit upon hearing that. What had been said was true enough, of course, but that didn't make her feel any better about the situation. Not only did she need to find an opening without risking a limb, but she also needed to somehow subdue the berserk kendo practitioner so she could move him to a private location and heal him. The latter would normally not be all that difficult to accomplish, but one of the effects of the magic draught made it so the one under its influence couldn't be knocked unconscious, short of inflicting significant brain trauma. Fortunately, while she didn't know of any shiatsu techniques that could paralyze someone, she did know of someone who did.
    "I... need... a... distraction!" She told Akane, with each word being delivered between an evasive maneuver. "Find... something... to... throw... at... him!"
    Akane found a large chunk of asphalt by her feet. She set her school bag aside before she picked it up, tested its weight, then launched it at Kuno's head. He would have taken care of such a projectile without a problem, normally, but the unnatural focus of his mind stole away the awareness that he normally would have had for such a thing. Thus, it came as a surprise — to her — when her attack struck true.
    While the blow to Kuno's head hadn't been nearly enough to distract or deter him from attacking his pigtailed goddess, it had been enough to disrupt his momentum and coordination. It provided the opening that Ranma needed to disarm him, and with a well-placed kick she sent his sword soaring into the sky. Then, when he tried to attack her with his bare hands, she put her grappling skills to work and in only a few seconds had him pinned to the ground, face-down, with his arms restrained behind him. He struggled mightily to escape her hold on him, but her superior strength and position kept him from working his way free — though not without some considerable strain.
    Now that the danger had seemingly passed, those who had kept their distance had begun to move closer, raising their voices all the while, as they talked amongst their friends and fellow students about what had just happened. Akane paid them no mind as she approached her fiancée, who appeared to be frowning about something; and she didn't think that it had anything to do with the girl's clothes being in tatters. She thought she knew the reason when she got close enough to hear Kuno muttering, "must kill beloveds," under his breath, which could be discerned now that the din of destruction had passed.
    Akane studied Kuno for a moment, as he continued to struggle futilely — mindlessly, really — against the redhead above him. "What are you going to do, now?"
    Ranma acknowledged Akane and grunted with the effort that it took to keep the larger boy restrained. "I'm gonna take him to the doc and see if he can take care of whatever messed him up. As much as I dislike his amorous advances, I'd rather avoid being puréed any time soon."
    Akane gave a nod of understanding. "Do you need any help?"
    "Nah," Ranma replied, with a shake of her head. "I think I can handle it." Then she looked up from Kuno and gave Akane a significant look. "Besides, in case something goes wrong, at least you'll be a safe distance away."
    Akane had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, she was touched that the other girl cared; on the other hand, she was irked because she was sure that she could take care of herself: because she could have handled Kuno with her magic, after all. Well, had she been in a position to use it, anyway. Unfortunately for her, she had been a part of a very public spectacle, and the use of her magic required discretion.
    In the end, all that she could do — to express what she felt about the matter — was frown. "Are you sure?"
    With an engineered set of movements, Ranma was able to hoist Kuno over her head without compromising her hold on him, or giving him any purchase that he could use to get himself free. "Yup. I have no idea how long this will take, and unlike you I no longer have any homework to turn in."
    Akane found herself looking at Ranma's back, and what remained of her school bag. It no longer had enough in the way of material to contain anything, and it didn't. It only remained where it was by the grace of a single shoulder strap, and only because it had been lucky enough to not be completely severed by any one of the numerous cuts that it had sustained.
    "I'm sure the teachers will understand," Akane lamely offered.
    Ranma snorted and sarcastically replied with, "Yeah, I'm sure they will."
    Deciding to not waste any more time, knowing that she couldn't spare any more of it hiding just how serious Kuno's condition really was, she jumped toward the nearest rooftop and began to make her way toward Tofu's clinic. She didn't plan on curing Kuno in secret because she needed to save him and keep her secret... well, a secret. If she were to claim that she had cured Kuno, or that he had recovered on his own, she knew that neither explanation would sit well with Kodachi; who — of course — would have to conclude that the only person who could have been responsible for his recovery would have to be none other than the one who had been Hestia in their past life. And that conclusion would no doubt find its way to the other girls, she was sure.
    It was her hope that she would be able to trust the doctor with what she would have to reveal to him, in order for her to do what she needed to do. Not only in regard to keeping her secret, but in having to rely on his willingness and ability to lie in order to keep said secret, if it ever came to that. She respected him more than she did most others because he was such an upstanding figure, so his full cooperation was — unfortunately — not guaranteed.
    Either way, she'd rather risk exposure than risk a life; even if the owner of that life had done plenty to inconvenience her own. It wasn't her place to decide whether someone deserved to die, anyway.

    As Ranma entered Tofu's clinic, she had to maneuver Kuno around so he wouldn't be able to apply his feet to the door frame and use it for leverage. Once that was out of the way, she took a moment to glance around the lobby and found a middle-aged woman and an old man waiting for their appointments with the doctor. They were giving her odd looks.
    "Hey, doc!" She shouted, before she carefully readjusted her grip on the still-struggling Kuno and muttered, "It's a good thing that you're normally not this strong."
    The door that led into the back room slid open a few seconds later, then Tofu stepped into view with an inquisitive look on his face. When he saw Ranma, and the state that she and her burden were in, he blinked his eyes in surprise. "Ranma?"
    Ranma calmly caught the doctor's full attention with the gravity of her gaze. "I need your help."
    Tofu easily understood her unspoken message, so he nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose and furrowed his brow as the seriousness of the situation occurred to him. "What do you need?"
    "First," Ranma said, "we'll need some privacy."
    "Will my apartment be sufficient?" Tofu asked, since he had left a patient in the back room.
    Ranma nodded her head. "I'll tell you what's going on once we're there."
    Tofu led Ranma to a door that was on the opposite side of the room, which opened up to a stairway that led to his apartment on the second floor. Ranma had a difficult time getting Kuno through the enclosed space, which resulted in several trailing holes in the surrounding walls, but she managed to make her way through it without losing her hold on him.
    After Tofu had the door to his apartment closed, she spared him an apologetic look for the damage before she forged ahead with what needed to be done. "Okay, if I don't fix what's wrong with this guy soon enough, he's going to die. In order for me to do that, I need him to be still for at least a minute."
    With a nod of understanding, Tofu motioned toward the low table that was in front of his couch. Ranma placed Kuno's upper body down on top of it, face-down, which left his legs flailing uselessly in the air behind him. While she continued to hold him in place, from where she knelt beside the table, she watched as the doctor joined her on the other side and called upon his skills in the art of shiatsu, whereupon he went to work by pressing several pressure points around Kuno's torso. Then he did so again, by pressing a different series of pressure points, when the first attempt didn't appear to work.
    It wasn't until the third attempt that she finally felt the fight drain out of him, to the point where she felt that she could finally release him. When she did, his arms slid uselessly to his sides. It was a sight that drew a sigh of relief from her, because she hadn't known how much longer she would have had the strength to restrain him. It was bad enough that she had to flex her fingers so she could get the stiffness out of them, which was bad because she needed them for the spell that she would soon need to cast.
    "I don't know how long it will last," Tofu informed her, as he looked on with concern. "I felt a lot of resistance, and in more ways than I ever thought possible."
    Ranma nodded her head grimly, and began to shake her hands out. "That's because everything in his body is being forced to perform at levels far exceeding what is healthy, which is made worse by the fact that the state is a sustained one."
    When she felt that her fingers were ready for the task ahead, she flipped Kuno onto his back. His eyes were in the same shape as before, his jaw appeared to be locked into place, and his nostrils still flared with how heavy and fast he continued to breathe. His skin seemed to be more flush than before, and a brief touch told her that he was still burning up... except he was becoming hotter than he had been before.
    She cursed. "This isn't good. His body is being put under more stress, now that he doesn't have an outlet for all of the energy that he's producing. I better work fast."
    So saying, she extended both hands over Kuno's body, with one stopping over his head and the other over his chest. Tofu watched her with no small amount of amazement showing on his face as her fingertips began to glow softly, in a color of white that was as pure as snow. She then proceeded to draw in the air with the fingers of both hands, at the same time. The area rippled like water as her fingertips touched upon something that appeared to be substantial, which seemed to make it possible for her to leave behind trails of white light in the wake of her dexterous fingers' movements.
    As Ranma drew two pairs of wings, which were symbols that represented freedom, she considered herself lucky. Her memories as Hestia were only a day old, and they felt just as fresh when she recalled them, rather than how old they would have been for Hestia herself. That allowed her to remember what she needed to do with confidence, since Hestia may not have remembered all of the details after a few years of learning something that she had (thankfully) never had the need to call up again.
    Once she finished drawing the wings, she drew circles around them, followed by significantly wider circles around those. Then, in between them, she began to write instructions in a language that had probably gone extinct. It was a language that required all of one's fingers to dance in intricate patterns, with the express purpose of guiding magic in specific ways using various instructions. Once complete, she would only need to activate the magical array that would result from her work and it would take care of the rest, which included drawing out from her the amount of magic that would be needed to fuel the spell.
    When her preparations were complete, she activated the magical array that she had constructed and then sat back to watch it do its job. The magical array flashed, which was followed by a translucent nimbus of energy appearing around Kuno's body. It slowly began to seep into him, and as it did his jaw began to relax, his breathing slowed, and the look of his eyes began to return to a semblance of normalcy even as his eyelids closed. When the nimbus could no longer be seen, the magical array faded away, indicating that the spell had finished its work.
    Ranma slowly swept a hand over Kuno's now-resting body, using magic to scan for his condition, and sighed with relief when she was done. "I think I cured him in time, but he's not going to be in any condition to move around for a while."
    Tofu continued to stare, for a moment, before he was able to shake himself out of the daze that he had been in since the start of the spellwork that he had born witness to. "I... shouldn't have a problem accommodating him."
    An awkward silence followed his words. He didn't know what to say, or if he should ask anything, and Ranma wasn't sure if she should give an explanation regardless of whether he prodded for one or not. It wasn't that she didn't trust him, but rather that handing out the information wasn't necessary, and spreading it around would likely do more harm than good.
    In the end, she decided that she had to say something to break the silence. "You're probably wondering what happened, huh?"
    Tofu replied with a wry smile. "That's a bit of an understatement, but I won't bother you with any questions since you seem reluctant to share what you know."
    "Sorry," Ranma apologized, with an expression of gratefulness gracing her visage. "It's just that, well... It's complicated. What I just did wouldn't have been possible the day before yesterday, and I'm still trying to figure out what to do from here on out, now that things have... changed."
    Tofu nodded his head in understanding. "Well, if you ever need anything, you know where to find me."
    Ranma smiled faintly and said, "thanks," before she stood up and stretched out her arms and back. Tofu had to turn his head away, since the damage to her shirt had compromised its function in keeping certain parts of her torso covered. "For now, though, I need to go. But I'll be sure to take you up on your offer, should anything come up."
    Then she paused, as if remembering something, and her expression sobered. "There's just one thing..." Seeing that she had Tofu's attention, she continued. "What I did just now isn't something that I want to become public knowledge, for reasons that I can't discuss even if I wanted to. Should anyone happen to ask, please answer as if I hadn't played a role in his recovery. And, if it comes down to it..."
    "...You want me to lie," Tofu guessed, frowning.
    Ranma gave him a pleading look. "At least consider it?"
    Tofu responded with a reluctant nod. "I will consider it."
    He was surprised when he received an uncharacteristic hug from the little redhead in gratitude, gratitude that she also voiced in accompaniment. He recovered quickly enough and reciprocated her hug, though she smiled with amusement when she pulled away and saw the bemused look on his face. It wasn't the kind of behavior that he would have normally associated with Ranma, girl or boy; and he considered himself to be a very good judge of character.
    After they exchanged their goodbyes, Tofu stared after Ranma's departing form, wondering what kind of change she had recently undergone. It seemed that she never had a dull moment, or — perhaps to put it more accurately — even a break. He didn't know what was going on, but he knew that Ranma was a good kid, and therefor hoped that things would work out for the best.

    After a change of clothes and sex back at home, Ranma had finally made it to school. His time there had proceeded as it normally did, although Ukyo and Akane had been too preoccupied with something to cause him any grief during lunch. Even with Shampoo's presence, which had made the atmosphere rather tense at one point, things had gone rather civilly. It had been a rare but welcome break, and had allowed him to focus on more important things.
    One of those things included his reason for waiting on the school's clock tower after the final bell had rung, because of a note that he had found in his shoe cubby. He wasn't sure who could have written it, although the handwriting had looked familiar to him (which probably meant that he had seen something written by the author at least one other time in the past).
    He looked up at the overcast sky and hoped that whoever-it-was wouldn't keep him waiting for too long. Turning into a girl had always been a complication in his life before, and it was more so now that he remembered his past life as Hestia. Of course, when he considered what could have happened to Kuno earlier, if he had not recalled being Hestia yesterday, much less if he had never gone to Jusenkyo and received his curse...
    Before he could drive down that road of thought any further, his attention was diverted to a presence that had appeared behind him. He tensed up a bit and turned around, but he relaxed when he saw who it was, even as unexpected as it turned out to be. The "kunoichi" that worked for Ukyo wasn't known for being all that social, after all. And it didn't help that he preferred to be out of sight — and thus out of mind — when he wasn't working at Ukyo's restaurant.
    He wondered what the occasion could be for, in part because he was still wearing the kimono that he wore as Ukyo's waitress. "Konatsu? I wasn't expecting it to be you."
    "I apologize if I'm inconveniencing you, Ranma-san," Konatsu apologized, while he bowed his head deferentially. "I wasn't sure who to turn to about this... until yesterday."
    Ranma had a feeling that he wasn't going to like what their conversation was going to be about. "Yesterday?"
    Konatsu nodded his head. "I've been worried about mistress Ukyo's recent activities, so I decided to follow her when she left me to do all of the chores yesterday morning."
    Ranma sighed. "Let me guess: you saw them using magic, right?"
    "Yes," Konatsu affirmed.
    "And you saw me there, too," Ranma concluded.
    Konatsu gave a small smile. "I did."
    Ranma regarded him with an inquiring expression. "Okay; I think I understand why you came to me about this. What I don't know is what you want."
    "Well," Konatsu began, adopting a look of concern, "I was hoping that you knew something about what was going on, and whether there's anything that I could do. I'm worried because mistress Ukyo has begun to act more like my step-family as of late."
    Ranma couldn't help feeling a pang of sympathy. The truth of the matter was that Ukyo didn't treat Konatsu much differently to begin with, what with all of the work that she had him do for only five yen — and sometimes not even that. He was under the misconception that Ukyo was much kinder than she really was, due to a single act of kindness. It was an understandable reaction, considering how he had been mistreated by his step-family, but it seemed like he was beginning to realize that the gulf between Ukyo and his step-family — regarding how they treated him — wasn't nearly as great as he had first thought. Be it due to desperation or deprivation, or both, in the end he was probably going to be in for a rude awakening.
    Ranma shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "I'm afraid there's nothing that can be done about it. Even if I were allowed to tell you about the details, it wouldn't change the fact that she and the others are choosing to behave as they have."
    "I see..." Came Konatsu's despondent response, his eyes lowered.
    The sky chose that moment to open up and add its own piece to the conversation, in accordance with the mood. Ranma sighed as he once again became a she; nature never seemed to give her a break. It didn't help that — despite how he currently felt — Konatsu was still mindful enough to take out his umbrella and guard his outfit against the rain. Why didn't she ever carry around an umbrella, like Ryoga did? Oh, right...
    That line of thought made her wonder about Konatsu. He had been raised as a girl, after all. Even now, beyond the control of his step-family, he showed no sign of wanting to act or dress like a boy. Now that she had access to magic, along with the knowledge required to use it, she could ask him whether or not he would want to become a girl. If he did, perhaps it'd give him something to be happy about, if or when he no longer saw Ukyo with rose-tinted glasses.
    Once she gathered the resolve needed to pursue such an idea, she said, "Say... If it were possible to do, and it didn't cost you anything, would you want to be transformed into a girl?"
    Konatsu looked up, with a, "I'm not sure if I heard you right," expression on his face. "What?"
    Ranma had to grin a little at his reaction. "Would you like to be a girl?"
    "A girl?" Konatsu asked, whose gaze had become more intense.
    Ranma nodded her head in response.
    Konatsu bit his bottom lip. "A real girl?"
    Again, Ranma nodded her head.
    Konatsu looked away, held his free hand to his cheek, and blushed. "Well, I... I still like... I mean..."
    It took a moment for Ranma to understand what he was trying to say, but she eventually realized what might make him reluctant to give a yes or no answer: he was attracted to girls. That's what she assumed, anyway. It was hard to tell because she had little to go on, and what she did know — regarding his attraction to Ukyo — could possibly be tainted by factors that had nothing to do with sexual preference.
    "If you're unsure," she said, "you have the option to change back into a guy if things don't work out."
    Konatsu looked hopeful. "Really?"
    Ranma smiled. "Of course."
    Tears of happiness began to gather in Konatsu's eyes, as she pulled out a tube of lipstick. "You're so kind... This calls for—"
    "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Ranma interjected, as she held up her hands and made a warding gesture. "You don't need to thank me." That only seemed to move him all the more, so she hastily added, "Anyway, if you're interested, then come to the Tendo's dojo at midnight, tonight."
    Konatsu was unable to respond with words, as choked up with emotion as he was, so he nodded his head before he took his leave. Ranma watched him go, wondering what she had gotten herself into. Before she had become aware of her past life, she had felt sorry for Konatsu; but not to the point where she felt like doing something to help him, despite how happy he was with Ukyo. Well, it was a bit more complicated than that, but...
    Either way, it was a clear sign of just how much influence Hestia's life was having on her own. Whether it was good or bad, she didn't know. She only hoped that it wouldn't come back to bite her in the ass. Knowing her luck, she might as well not even care, for all of the good it would do for her to try and keep something under wraps. It was likely just a matter of time before someone found out about her being aware of her past life, no matter what she did.

Chapter 6

    Nabiki was in the middle of pulling a pair of shorts up her legs when her bedroom door opened. She paused in mid-motion and looked up, and saw that her younger sister — who was still dressed in their school's uniform — had just let herself in. Judging by the look on her face, she had a good idea regarding what her visit was going to be about.
    After pulling her shorts up the rest of the way, she turned to face her sister and sarcastically said, "You know, there's this little thing called knocking. You should try it sometime."
    Akane ignored her remark and closed the door behind her before she leveled a stern gaze upon her sister. "What happened to your legs?"
    Nabiki cocked an eyebrow. "What unhappened, you mean?"
    "You know what I mean," came Akane's angry reply, before she demanded, "Now, tell me!"
    Nabiki turned away and shrugged her shoulders, as if unconcerned, and reached into her armoire. She began to sift around for a top that she could wear with her choice of bottom. "How am I supposed to know? It just decided to fall out." She looked over at her sister and gave her a questioning look, although she was hiding a smirk behind it. "Why? You're not saying that it wasn't meant to happen, are you?"
    Akane wondered if her spellwork could have been imperfect. It had been her first time casting a curse, even though Juno had cast them often enough, after all. The truth of the matter was that she hadn't been quite as efficient with her elemental attack spells, at the beginning, and it had taken a bit of practice to bring her skill back up to Juno's level. That meant that she might have made a small mistake when she had cast her curse, which would have caused the magic to deteriorate.
    She wasn't about to admit that she could have made a mistake, though. "O-of course not! I... just forgot that I had put a time limit on it, that's all!"
    Nabiki pulled out a crop top, looked it over, then idly returned her attention back to her sister. "So, we're done here?"
    Akane glared back at her. "Just don't stick your nose where it doesn't belong, or the next time your nose hair will be long enough to trip over."
    Nabiki watched as her sister left in a huff, which included her door being closed with more force than necessary. Getting her sister's goat wasn't the extent of what she would have liked to have accomplished, but she had to accept that it had been better than nothing. Until she was sure that her sister couldn't carry out any of her magical threats, there was little else that she could do.
    As she pulled her crop top over her head, she wondered about Ranma's changes. He (she, at the time) had cured her of her curse, even though he had risked drawing unwanted attention to himself. What was he trying to hide from the other girls, though; and why? And could she get away with relieving him of some of his money, to keep her mouth shut about it?
    She shook her head at that last thought. As tempting as it was, this new Ranma now had a sort of Kasumi-like quality to him — or was it her? Also, while he had always been a sucker for doing the right thing, irrespective of the (usually painful) consequences, those times hadn't been served with any real feeling. When he had cured her of her curse, however, she had been able to tell that it had been more than a decision based on an impersonal rationalization: he had really and truly cared.
    The cynic in her wondered how to respond to that.

    Ranma was soaked to the skin by the time she got back home, so she had to change into a new outfit for the second time that day. She was at least comforted by the thought that she would be able to wear her shucked outfit in the future, unlike the first outfit that she had worn.
    When she tried to leave her family's bedroom, she had to stop for the person that she found waiting for her outside in the hallway. "Kasumi?"
    "Do you have a minute?" She asked.
    After giving her a nod to indicate that she did, Ranma fell in behind her when the older girl made a gesture that indicated that she should follow her. She wondered what she could want from her, as they made their way through the house. When she realized that they were heading toward the dojo and the privacy that it offered, she began to hope that nothing troublesome had come up.
    Once they were inside of the dojo, Kasumi pulled out a slip of paper from her apron and profferred it to her. "Phoebe wanted me to give this to you."
    Ranma accepted it and examined what was written on it. There was an address for a Shinto shrine, which was located in the Minato ward. Below that was a date and a time, for tomorrow evening. She supposed that Phoebe wanted her to go to the shrine at the appointed time, though she had no idea why.
    She looked up from the paper and asked, "Did she tell you why she wants me to go to this place?"
    Kasumi shook her head. "She only said that you should see a miko there."
    Ranma considered that information. If Phoebe wanted her to see a miko at the Shinto shrine, then perhaps she wanted her to help the miko heal someone or seal something — and playing the role of a miko herself would be an ideal medium for something like that. However, since she didn't go right out and say what she wanted her to do there, it made her wonder if the guardian cat had some kind of hidden agenda. It was hard to say because she had never played games with Hestia in the past.
    She decided that it probably wouldn't hurt to go. "Well, I was planning to go on an outing with Akane tomorrow, but I guess it can wait."
    Kasumi tilted her head inquisitively. "An 'outing?'"
    Ranma scratched the side of her face and looked away. "Er, yeah... I kinda suggested that we work on being friends, in order to improve our relationship."
    "Oh, dear," Kasumi thought, with a concerned look on her face, as she reached out and gently touched the redhead's upper arm. Aloud, she asked, "Have your feelings for her changed?"
    "Changed, confused..." Ranma answered, her shoulders slumping with a sigh. "I can overlook the fact that she had once been Juno, but she and others expect or otherwise demand us to go farther than friendship... I'm not sure if I'll be able to take our relationship any further than that. Whether I'm a guy or a girl, marriage is just so..."
    Kasumi didn't know why, but Hippolyta had noticed Hestia's reluctance to marry, too. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that both Hestia and Ranma had a certain unwillingness toward romantic entanglements. She couldn't really blame Ranma for it, considering the mess that he ended up with, but the reason for Hestia's disposition remained a mystery to her.
    Perhaps she could find out, if she tried to get Ranma to finish her last sentence. However, it was obvious that she wasn't ready to share how she felt about the matter, so she would show her respect and give her the time she would need to tell her when she was ready. Until then...
    "Why not take Akane out today, then," she suggested. When she received a questioning look in response, she added, "Well, I think that friendship is a good place to start, no matter where you plan to go with it. Akane didn't seem to be in a good mood when I saw her last, and I know that she would welcome the distraction."
    Ranma smiled her appreciation. "Maybe I will, then. Thanks, Kasumi."
    She began to leave, but she stopped after a few steps and — while facing away from Kasumi — tilted her head back a bit before suddenly saying, "You know, it's been a long time since I've seen you 'dance.'"
    Kasumi let out an amused snort upon hearing that. "You would still call it 'dancing,' would you?"
    Ranma turned around and grinned. "Maybe. Except this time I'd be the one doing the leading, and you the following."
    "I think I'd like that," Kasumi replied, smiling softly.
    Ranma nodded her head before she left to find Akane, knowing that she and Kasumi would have to get together and figure out a good time to have the dojo to themselves, when no one else would be around to catch them "dancing." When she was standing outside of Akane's bedroom, she pushed those thoughts aside and rapped her knuckles against the door.
    "Come in," came the muffled response.
    When she opened the door, she saw Akane standing in the middle of her room. She was wearing her gi, as well as a sweatband, as she pumped first one dumbbell, followed by the other, above her head. It was clear that she was annoyed about something, and it seemed that her presence hadn't improved her mood for some reason.
    "What do you want?" Akane asked, sounding impatient.
    Ranma did her best to seem nonchalant about the other girl's behavior as she stepped into the room. "Oh, I was just wondering if you'd like to go out and have some ice cream with me."
    Akane almost threw herself off balance when she next raised one of her dumbbells, not having expected to hear such a request. It sounded — to her — like her fiancé wanted to go out on a date with her. She knew that couldn't be right, of course. Perhaps something was up...
    She regarded the redhead with a suspicious glare. "What are you up to, now?"
    Ranma put on a confused expression. "Is there something wrong with wanting to spend some time with my new friend?"
    It took Akane a moment before her eyes widened in realization. "Oh! Um..." She was a bit flustered and uncertain about the situation, and she tried her best to hide it. "Did you say 'ice cream?'"
    Ranma smiled and gave a bouncy nod. "I'm buying."
    The next thing that she knew, she was being shoved out of the room — with the door slamming shut behind her — before she could blink. And she did blink — several times, in fact — while she wondered about what had happened. Had her offer to Akane been rejected? Then, before she knew it, the door swung open to reveal her fiancée, who was breathing hard from exertion. She had traded her gi in for a midi-length skirt, blouse and cardigan; which was a lot more appropriate for wearing out in public.
    Akane regarded the other girl with a frown. "Are you going out like that?"
    Ranma looked down at herself, then back up at Akane, with a puzzled expression on her face. "What do you mean?"
    Akane sighed in exasperation. "Aren't you going as a guy?"
    "Of course not," Ranma replied, who shook her head with some amusement. "I only eat ice cream as a girl, remember?"
    Akane seemed to deflate a bit at that. "Oh. Right."
    "Besides," Ranma went on, "if we're going to build our friendship, we don't want people to see us together and make us feel uncomfortable because they assume we're a couple, right?"
    That made a lot of sense to Akane, who was a bit surprised by Ranma's insightfulness. She wasn't exactly sure how to respond to it with words, so she opted to nod her head in understanding instead.
    That drew a smile from Ranma, who held out her hand in invitation. "So, are you ready to go?"
    Akane took her hand and tried to smile with more confidence than she actually had for what was ahead. "As ready as you are."

    Akane stared across the table, watching the girl who was eating her ice cream like a... well, like a lady. She had caught Ranma acting odd (for him) every now and again since the start of the day, before Kuno had attacked them. She wasn't going to complain if her fiancé wanted to go through the effort of getting closer to her, but she couldn't help feeling that something wasn't right. Well, she supposed that there was at least one way to figure it out, while they still had the relative privacy of their booth.
    "So," Akane broke the silence between them, "are you really serious about this?"
    "Serious about what?" Ranma asked, after she swallowed another bite of ice cream.
    "At least he's still an idiot," Akane thought to herself, before she replied with, "You know what I mean. Do you really want to..." She paused, her cheeks flushing. "Do you really want to improve our relationship?"
    Ranma knew what Akane meant, but also knew that it could be understood in another way, so she was nonchalant in her response. "Well, yeah. It's better than fighting all of the time, isn't it?"
    Akane simply nodded her head at that and took another bite of her ice cream, as she tried to think of something else that she could say. However, despite the intention of their outing, she was still very much aware that the other girl — whom she was supposed to be friendly with — was her fiancé. It made things awkward for her, and she didn't know how to handle it.
    Then she noticed that the other girl was scrutinizing her in a thoughtful manner. "What?"
    "I was curious about something," Ranma answered, who wondered if she should bring up the subject that had come to mind. After taking a second to consider it, she figured that any time would be better than never, and that she could have a bit of fun while she was at it. "I was thinking about how you hate boys."
    Akane, who had been raising her spoon to her mouth, paused and carefully asked, "What about it?"
    "Well," Ranma began, before she leaned forward and — in a lowered voice — inquired, "do you like girls?"
    She did her best to reign in the desire to laugh out loud, because Akane had been caught between anger (which wanted her to make a scene) and embarrassment (which wanted her to hide her face). It resulted in something that looked like a seizure, with a wide range of facial expressions, arm gesticulations, and a bunch of sputtering false starts that were supposed to be verbal responses.
    Once she began to settle down, Ranma innocently asked, "What did I say?"
    Akane, who was less than amused, shot a glare at her and hissed, "How could you ask me something like that?"
    "What do you mean?" Ranma asked, who put on a look of incomprehension. "If we're going to get married, and if I'm still stuck with this curse, would you be able to accept all of me?"
    Akane was gobsmacked. "All of... you?"
    It was time to get serious, so Ranma looked into Akane's eyes and adopted a solemn expression on her face. "Akane, I don't know if you've noticed, but I turn into a girl pretty often. It's taken me a while to understand what that will mean for me, if I am never able to get myself cured. I have to accept that I'll probably spend a good part of my life with this body. And if I'm to spend the rest of my life with someone else, how would it work out if they could only show their love for me a part of the time?"
    Akane became dizzy when she thought about the implications. Sure, she didn't like boys, but she didn't like girls in that way, either. She didn't think so, at least. She preferred mature men, of which Ranma was anything but, yet she could admit to herself that she was attracted to her... him. But why?
    She looked down at her ice cream, feeling confused. If she didn't like boys or girls, and she didn't consider Ranma to be a mature man, then what was she attracted to? It wasn't like there were a lot of things to like about him, aside from the times that he had saved her life. However, even then, she had no idea if he had done it because of obligation, or because he really cared about her. One example of that was when he had saved Nabiki, instead of her, when she had broken the balcony. He had chosen to save her sister because it had been the right thing to do, not because he particularly cared about her. There was no way that he would ever care about her, considering how she treated him. (She conveniently ignored her own treatment of him, since she felt that it was — more often than not — justified.)
    She looked back up at Ranma, and found her patiently waiting for some kind of response. She stared deeply into her blue eyes, framed by a cute face and striking red hair, and wondered if she would be able to be intimate with another girl. Ranma was the only person that she could see herself being married to, but she couldn't picture whether he would be a girl or a boy at the altar despite rationalizing that he should be a boy because it was obvious that she should assume the role of the girl.
    Finally, she looked back down at her ice cream and began to poke at it with her spoon. "I don't know what to say..."
    "That's fine," came Ranma's soft reply. Akane glanced up and saw the gentle expression on her face, which was somewhat foreign to what she was accustomed to seeing there. "I wasn't expecting an answer right away. Just be sure to think about it, okay?"
    Akane nodded her head absently. She spent the rest of their time together deep in thought, thinking about what had been brought to light about their relationship, her sexuality, and Ranma's behavior. A lot of things had changed in the past few weeks, and she was finding it difficult to determine what was considered to be normal. The future — and her place in it — seemed more uncertain than ever before.

    The rest of the day passed by uneventfully, and Ranma had enjoyed spending that time as a guy. In that time he had also begun to suspect that Hestia's life had a greater influence on him when he was a girl, because the memories and the body were more familiar with each other, like his own memories were with his male body. Which was a problem because acting more like Hestia felt too natural when he was a girl, and made it difficult for him to realize exactly what he was doing until after the fact.
    And now — all too soon — she was female once again, as a result of an earlier decision that she had made as a girl. However, while she waited for Konatsu in the dojo, she had to admit that she was curious about what the outcome would be, since the soon-to-be-kunoichi-in-actuality's situation hit close to home. She, like him, had a gender issue to deal with, no matter how much she tried to convince herself otherwise. Somehow being born as a male just didn't carry enough weight to settle the matter.
    When Konatsu arrived at midnight, wearing his old kunoichi outfit, he seemed equal parts uncertain and excited. He probably had as much of an idea of what he really wanted as she did, with the only difference being that he really wanted to find out what sex he wanted to be. Well, she'd probably feel the same way, except her life was a lot more complicated, and filled with a number of obligations that required her to be a man.
    She didn't want to stay awake too much longer, so she decided to get right down to business. "There are a few things that I'd like to get out of the way, before we begin. First and foremost: do not speak of this to anyone. If certain individuals knew that I'm capable of doing what I'm about to do, it'll be very troublesome."
    Konatsu nodded his head in understanding.
    "Second," Ranma continued, "is whether you're sure you want to go through with this. As I said, I'm willing to change you back if you don't like it, but are you ready for what you might experience?"
    After a moment of hesitation, Konatsu meekly said, "I need to know."
    Ranma nodded her head, having expected as much. "Third, if you ever feel like showing off your body, I recommend doing it elsewhere. I'd rather you avoided bringing up questions about how you've become a girl."
    "I understand," Konatsu replied.
    "Finally," Ranma said, as she gestured toward a thermos, "I'd like for you to pour that hot water on me, and then sneak me into bed, after we're done. The spell that will change you into a girl will more than likely exhaust me to the point of knocking me out, and I don't want anyone to know that I was here, much less wondering why."
    "I will," was Konatsu's resolute reply. "I promise."
    Ranma smiled. "Let us begin, then."
    While Konatsu sat against a wall and watched, she went to work on a fairly large and very complicated magical array. It took her about twenty minutes to complete. During that time, she recalled the reason for why she knew the spell in the first place, and so well: because Hestia had contemplated — on too many occasions to count — becoming someone else and leaving the life of a princess behind.
    Being aware of that had made her task a very sobering one. After all, since being cursed, there had been times when she had considered leaving her responsibilities behind and living her life as a girl somewhere. They were usually idle thoughts, as opposed to being as serious as Hestia's thoughts tended to be, but they had been thought nonetheless. Ultimately, neither she nor Hestia had thought that running away would solve anything, much less bring them peace of mind, but the option had always been there to tempt the princess and would likely continue to do so with her, the martial artist.
    After she checked over her work, to make sure that everything about the magical array was as it should be, she looked over at Konatsu. He seemed to have a fair amount of nervous energy pent-up, while also exhibiting amazement at what was laid out before him, which covered nearly half of the floor's surface.
    She couldn't help smiling with amusement at the sight. "Are you ready?"
    Konatsu nodded his head absently before he turned his full attention to her and said, "Yes."
    She indicated the open spot in the middle of the magical array, which was within a twelve-pointed star. "Just sit down there and we'll be ready to begin. None of the design will break if you step through it, so you can walk to it normally."
    Konatsu did as instructed, and soon sat where he needed to be. He was anxious about what was about to happen, and what it might mean for his future. He wasn't sure what to expect, not knowing whether having a female body would feel right or strange, or if the new body would bring with it any fundamental changes that would truly redefine him as a kunoichi.
    "Here we go," Ranma said, who gave Konatsu a look that told him that he had one more chance to change his mind. When he didn't, she activated the spell.
    Konatsu tensed as the magical construct glowed brighter. Then the twelve-pointed star around him broke into four triangles that began to spin at different speeds while simultaneously rising to different heights. Once they attained their individual places and rate of rotation, they each began to glow a different color, in the order of green, red, yellow and blue. At that point his body was suffused with a comforting warmth, which made him relax.
    Ranma watched from the sidelines, as she felt the spell sap away her magic power. She could see some minute changes in Konatsu's appearance, though she didn't think that there would be enough — in the end — to really tell the difference unless someone were to really scrutinize him. Well, unless someone saw him naked: that would be another story, altogether. She figured that his decrease in height, and possibly the size of his breasts, would be the most noticeable changes since he was so effeminate-looking to begin with.
    When the spell finished its job, and the magical array disappeared, Konatsu didn't need to look at or touch a certain part of her body to know that she had become a girl. She raised her hands and looked them over, turning them over from one side to the other to see the extent of how they had changed — which wasn't much, but still enough to be appreciable. Then her hands roamed over her face, to figure out what had changed there, even though a mirror would have been the ideal tool for that. She pulled her top out at the neckline after that, so she could look down at her breasts, and she noted that they took up a bit more space on her chest than the breast pockets of her false chest did.
    When she had the presence of mind to think about the person responsible for her transformation, she found her collapsed onto her side, unconscious. She made her way over to her, and knelt beside her head. She could feel the sting of tears in her eyes as she brushed the redhead's hair away from her face, knowing that she really cared about her. She had been the one who had so easily forgiven her for what she had done to her, once she had realized that she didn't have to listen to what her step-family wanted of her.
    She would find some way to show her appreciation when she next had the opportunity to do so, but — for now — all that she could do was use the hot water to transform Ranma into a guy and get him into bed. Once she was done with that, she left for Ucchan's, her mind filled with various expectations and fears of the days to come... as a girl.

Chapter 7

    Cologne idly watched as the lunch crowd began to mill into her establishment. She showed Mousse no mercy as she sent out one new order after the next from her place behind the counter, though he had become quite proficient at handling the load all by himself. He seemed more than happy to pick up her great-granddaughter's slack at her request, even though she often heard him mutter what he suspected Ranma was supposedly doing with her.
    It wasn't long before she saw her great-granddaughter leaving with a food delivery box in hand, no doubt with the intention of going to see son-in-law during his lunch break at school. She didn't bother saying anything to her because she was filled with too much disappointment. She should have kept the girl tethered to the restaurant, in order to mitigate her foolish behavior, but she had come to realize that the time for coddling had long since passed, and that she would have to leave her to pursue her latest endeavor on her own.
    She remembered when her great-granddaughter had returned home one evening, a few weeks ago, with her aura significantly different. The aura that surrounded each individual could be used to sense a person's presence with basic training, but someone as advanced as she could also read a person's personality by looking at their aura, which was akin to running an identification check. Changes in the aura, as far as it was related to personality, were normally gradual; not sudden, like her great-granddaughter's changes had been.
    As a result, she had confronted her great-granddaughter as if she had been possessed, and had made the threats necessary to learn what had happened. Being a reincarnated princess had been hard to believe, so it had required confirmation from a talking cat — who had claimed to be the overseer of the rite of succession that her great-granddaughter was a participant of — to accept the truth of the matter. Fortunately, due to there being no precedent for guarding their secret against someone with her abilities, her great-granddaughter had suffered no consequences.
    She had been proud to know that her great-granddaughter had the potential to become one of the legendary sailor senshi... at first. It had been a curious thing, when she had gone out to see if anyone else's aura had changed, in order to see who her competition could be. Tendo Akane had been the first that she had spotted, followed by Kuonji Ukyo a few days later; and then Kuno Kodachi a day after that, when she had attacked her great-granddaughter. Several days later she had also spotted the same change in Tendo Kasumi, although her lack of involvement in the other girls' fights suggested that she wasn't a fellow candidate.
    As a result of her spying, she had noticed that the talking cat, Phoebe, would sometimes be present to watch one of the girls in secret, or when they fought. They were being evaluated, as she would have guessed, and — from her own opinion on what the girls were doing — not making a very good impression. That's when her faith in her great-granddaughter had begun to wan, eventually to the point where she could care less whether she became a sailor senshi or not.
    Likewise, she had begun to think that her great-granddaughter's pursuit of son-in-law was a lost cause. It had been fun to provide some help every now and again (because son-in-law could be very entertaining), but she didn't see her returning to the village with him. In truth, she suspected that son-in-law wasn't all that interested in settling down with anyone, and it was little wonder considering the kind of treatment that he received from the girls closest to him.
    Of course, when she realized that all of these girls (save, possibly, Kasumi) had their heart set on son-in-law, she had begun to wonder how he might become involved. He hadn't changed like the others, when she had last checked, but she suspected that fate would not overlook him. She had a feeling, that touched upon the marrow of her old bones, that only the Earth Mother could inspire within her.
    Perhaps it was time to speak with him on the matter.

    Ranma had really looked forward to his school lunch. Last night's spell had taken a lot of energy out of him, and it had left him feeling lethargic all morning. Only an extra amount of food would help him to recover faster than normal, and he had an excuse to eat more than usual because either Ukyo or Shampoo — like clockwork — would likely offer him something to eat, in addition to what Kasumi or his mother had prepared for him.
    As he ate out of his bento, he looked toward the front of the classroom, where Ukyo had set up her grill and had begun to cook okonomiyaki. Akane probably wouldn't appeciate it if he accepted her food, much less Shampoo's, but he figured that he might have a way around it now.
    By the time that Ukyo had finished making okonomiyaki for him, Shampoo had entered the classroom with a box containing ramen noodles. She entered through the door instead of the wall because their homeroom teacher, Ninomiya Hinako, had finally convinced her to do so. Being too drained to do anything didn't help anyone who wanted to be productive, after all.
    Of course, why Shampoo had insisted on entering another classroom, in order to get into theirs via the wall that separated them, would likely remain a mystery. When he thought about it, though, he recalled how Eos had been a bit wanton in the destruction department. She had been wanton in other ways, too, now that he thought about it...
    Ukyo and Shampoo offered their food at the same time, which wasn't all that surprising. After pretending to be reluctant, he decided to accept both, saying that he was hungry and didn't want either to go to waste. That hadn't been the answer that they had been hoping for, but they turned to glare at each other, instead of fussing with him for having a legitimate excuse. Their rivalry had gone up a lot over the past few weeks, so he wasn't surprised by their response.
    While the sparks flew between them, he turned his attention to Akane. She was eating mechanically and — of course — had a bonfire of an aura around her. When she noticed him looking her way, she turned to glare at him, but faltered when he answered it with a wink. She blinked her eyes a few times in incomprehension, then her anger evaporated and she looked away, in order to hide a small, secretive smile and lightly-flushed cheeks.
    He was glad that she had gotten the message (that of taking advantage of their offerings, rather than accepting their advances), and proceeded to eat his sizable lunch in relative peace. She was the one that he wanted to pursue a meaningful relationship with, after all. Sure, they hadn't gotten along very well, for the most part, but at least she had treated him like some kind of person, rather than as an object that one could contest over for ownership.
    At that moment a familiar, nerve-grating laugh filled the classroom. When he turned to look toward the source, he saw Kodachi alight upon the sill of an open window. She was wearing her school uniform, and didn't seem to be carrying any weapons. He knew better, though: that she was currently unarmed just meant that whatever priority she had did not require threats of⁄or violence.
    Kodachi jabbed her finger at Akane. "You! Where is she!?"
    "Where is who?" Akane asked, who looked both confused and annoyed.
    "That pigtailed witch!" Kodachi exclaimed. "She's awake!"
    Many of Ranma's classmates were looking at him, exchanging comments about how Kodachi's statement was technically true. However, he — like Akane, Ukyo and Shampoo — knew what she really meant, so he did his best to look at Kodachi and act like he didn't understand what she was talking about.
    Ukyo's eyes flickered between Ranma and Kodachi before settling on the latter. "This isn't exactly the time or place for this."
    "Is true," Shampoo agreed, who was trying to glance over at Ranma surreptitiously.
    Kodachi snorted haughtily. "Simply tell me where she is and there won't be a problem."
    Everyone looked at Ranma, who sighed and shook his head. His curse had once been activated right in front of Kodachi's face, who had rationalized that his cursed form was some kind of witch that had magicked him away instead of being the same person. Akane had been the one to activate his curse, so she was the only other person who truly understood the disconnect that existed between him and Kodachi. His friends and classmates, on the other hand...
    Ranma turned around in her seat and glared through her dripping-wet bangs at Hiroshi, who was holding an empty pail. "You're not helping!"
    Before the boy in question — or anyone else, for that matter — could respond to that, she and everyone nearby had to do whatever they could to get out of the way of Kodachi's writhing gymnastics ribbon, as it wormed its way through the room. Several desks had been knocked over and tossed aside in its wake, in addition to a few people that hadn't been lucky enough to avoid it.
    "You healed my dear brother, you witch!" Kodachi accused, as she followed Ranma with her gymnastics ribbon. "No one else could have done it!"
    As Ranma hopped out of the way of another attack, she continued to act like she didn't know what Kodachi was talking about. "Well, excuse me for taking him to a doctor!"
    While that was going on, Ukyo, Akane and Shampoo watched from the sidelines, unsure if they should get involved; as well as with whom, should they decide to. What if Kodachi was right? Ukyo and Akane had surmised that she had been the one to do what had been done to her brother, when Shampoo had not shown any sign of expectation or disappointment when she had arrived at lunch yesterday. Since Kodachi knew how her own brand of magic worked better than they did, wouldn't it stand to reason that she would know what would be required to deal with it? However, Shampoo and Akane were more unsure about Kodachi's claim than Ukyo, because they knew that Ono Tofu wasn't just any ordinary doctor. If anyone had or knew of a cure for whatever Kodachi had done to her brother, it was either him or Shampoo's great-grandmother.
    Fortunately for them, the classroom door slammed open before they could make up their minds either way. In the doorway now stood a very angry and determined child-teacher, whose narrowed eyes locked onto Kodachi. She didn't bother giving the same attention to Ranma since she could (usually) tell who was being a delinquent, based on their auras. That, and her relationship with her redheaded student was a lot more positive than the one that she had for the girl that came from another school, whom always seemed to be trouble — particularly as of late.
    "You, again!" Hinako complained, as she took out a five-yen coin. "I won't stand for this kind of behavior, you delinquent!"
    Kodachi, who had been given more than enough warning to go along with her experience, had no trouble redirecting the movement of her gymnastics ribbon on the fly. Rather than aim for the coin, however, the end of her gymnastics ribbon made a sweep toward the child-teacher's face, who squealed in wide-eyed fright when she saw it coming, seemingly too late.
    Much to Hinako's relief, Ranma had come up to her side and had caught the gymnastics ribbon in her hand. Kodachi glared at the girl that was now on the other end of her weapon, as she recalled the day that they had met. Ranma returned that glare with one of her own, because of what would have happened if she hadn't stopped the gymnastics ribbon from reaching its target.
    "You..." Kodachi growled, as she reached for another weapon that she had hidden on her person. "First you began to use your magic to whisk away my darling at a whim..."
    The build-up of Kodachi's aura alerted Hinako, and reminded her of what she had been about to do. Without wasting any more time, she focused on Kodachi determinedly and began to drain the girl's energy.
    Despite being drained, Kodachi had — by then — pulled out two gymnastics clubs, and managed to fling them at Ranma and Hinako as she yelled, "I won't allow you to take my dream away, too!"
    Hinako stood firm, reassured by her student's presence. That same student knew better than to catch the two gymnastics clubs by their heads, so she caught them — one to a hand — by their handles. The sudden stop made the retractable spikes pop out, and the gymnastic club in front of Hinako's now-adult chest came within a centimeter of poking her left breast, which was a result of the teacher's growth and the length of the diminutive redhead's arm.
    Kodachi looked up at Ranma defiantly, as she sank to the ground with apparent weakness. Ranma watched, with an unreadable expression on her face, as she ran out of energy and crumpled to the ground. An errant wind blew through the classroom and picked up her limp and seemingly-emaciated body, carrying her out of the classroom through the very same window that she had used to enter.
    The brief silence that had followed her exit was quickly replaced by murmurs as people began to talk about what had happened, and just what Kodachi could have been referring to. They understood the how and the why concerning what she had meant about her darling being whisked away, but the part about her dream being threatened by Ranma was another matter entirely, and had aroused a lot of speculation.
    "Thank you, Saotome," Hinako said, as she looked over her student appraisingly. "I think I'll make a model student out of you, yet."
    Ranma nodded her head wordlessly — noncommittally — in response, before she tossed the gymnastics clubs aside with evident disgust. She felt dirty for having touched something whose purpose had been to cause more than a simple, negligent injury. Such a thing had bothered her in the past, and had made her reluctant to do the same thing unless it was necessary, but now she wondered if she would be able to tolerate it at all, in either case. It was just so...
    Akane chose that time to approach her, who made an attempt at being casual about it. "I wonder what all that was about."
    Ranma, who saw that Ukyo and Shampoo were trying to pretend like they weren't listening in on them, shrugged her shoulders. "I gave up trying to understand her a long time ago. I don't care much for Kuno, but even I'm relieved that nothing's wrong with him." She paused briefly before she muttered, "Well, nothing that wasn't already normal for him..."
    "So," Akane answered, as she looked at her fiancé's face with a noticeable amount of scrutiny, "doctor Tofu was able to fix whatever had been done to Kuno, then?"
    "I don't see how it could have been done without him," Ranma carefully answered. It was the truth, of course: she wouldn't have been able to cure Kuno while her hands were still occupied. "He really knows his stuff." Exactly what stuff, she didn't elaborate on.
    Akane, along with Shampoo and Ukyo, seemed to buy it. Relieved, Ranma cast her eyes about the classroom, to take in the mess that would have to be cleaned up before the lunch period ended. The contents of half of the classroom's desks were scattered about the room, and Hinako — now that she was once again in her child form — was scrambling around in a desperate attempt to nab all of the snacks and manga that she could find, voicing complaints and badgering anyone who were quick enough to deny her what she wanted.
    She wished that she could just put things behind her and be carefree like that, as if recent events didn't matter. Unfortunately, the world was known for giving reminders... and her mind tended to pay attention to them.

    Ukyo didn't need to look up from the grill to know that another customer had entered her restaurant. If the evening sunlight that had come through the parted noren hadn't been enough of an indication, then the greeting from Konatsu that had soon followed would have. It was certainly nice to have less of her attention diverted from cooking by having to greet every customer personally, since people who came into restaurants generally preferred being served sooner rather than later.
    Unfortunately, she had other things that had her a bit distracted: what had occurred at lunch, for instance. The thought of Hestia being awoken made her feel uneasy. There was no telling if she would be allowed another shot at becoming the Earth's sailor senshi, and she didn't exactly know what could be held against her to dissuade her from trying, if it ever came to that. The fact that her fiancé could become her made the scenario very complicated.
    Once Akane had told her more about doctor Tofu, she had felt a lot less worry about what Kodachi had said. It wasn't like the gymnast could tell that both of Ranma's forms were one and the same person, anyway. Still, the thought alone — the possibility — made it hard to even think about her pigtailed beau without there being a tinge of worry, of fear. It was a very good thing that he didn't know about Hestia, as far as she was concerned.
    Besides, now that she was a princess (even if she wasn't recognized by any modern civilization as such), she felt a lot better about her chances with Ranma. It was just a shame that he wasn't allowed to know about her being a princess from a bygone kingdom, or else her feelings about it could have been realized tactically, as well. How would he be able to resist a princess, after all?
    As she served some of the cooked okonomiyaki from the grill to her customers, she took a second to glance over at Konatsu. He was nice to have around since he made her feel like a princess, what with the kind of respect and service he willingly provided her. It was like having an indentured servant, since she didn't even have to pay him any wages. So what if he did it for love: she only had eyes for Ranma, and he had to know that by now.
    Something compelled her to take another look at her waitress. He was cleaning a recently-vacated spot of the bar, which itself wasn't odd. There was just something... off about him. Different? Perhaps his makeup had been applied in such a way as to bring out subtle but illusory changes to the shape of his face? She wasn't an expert in such matters, so she couldn't tell. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that his chest was a little more pronounced than usual. And if she didn't know any better, his voice sounded a bit different, too: what little sign that had hinted at a voice being forced was now gone, and his pitch seemed to be a bit higher than usual.
    She considered him a bit further, as she absently served another customer what they had ordered. It wasn't long before she decided that he was just trying to impress her, by being a more alluring waitress, because he had found out about her status as a princess. She wouldn't be surprised if that turned out to be the case, since he tended to shadow her everywhere she went unless she gave him something to do. Well, so long as it was good for business, she didn't care. It wasn't like he was the only one to have learned about what was going on, anyway: Cologne had found out in her own way, after all.
    Besides, what Phoebe didn't know wasn't going to hurt her chances.
    As Ukyo returned the rest of her attention to her cooking, Konatsu greeted a new customer. As she gave them a radiant smile, the sound of her heart beating in her ears began to go away, now that her employer's attention was no longer on her. She had feared being discovered, but it seemed like her makeup job and her bound chest had passed the test. She was glad that her voice had passed as well, since she had to force herself to speak normally in order to avoid sounding more like someone who had breathed in helium, now that she no longer had to fake the voice of the fairer sex.
    Butterflies had been fluttering in her stomach all day, due to both nervousness and excitement. While most of her body was the same, fundamentally, she was acutely aware of even the smallest changes, and it filled her with a sense of being. For once, with so much of her attention on herself, it felt as if she had become the center of the universe. It showed her a new perspective, one that was both enchanting and frightening.
    She didn't know what tomorrow would bring, but her newly-realized sense of self would see her through it, she was sure. At one time she had thought that she had found the courage to live her own life, but the events that had led up to her current employment said otherwise. Now, though...
    It would only be a matter of time before she discovered where she wanted to be, and what she wanted to do. She was going to find her own place in the world, without her life revolving around that of another's.

    On and around the stone steps of the Hikawa shrine's haiden sat and stood a group of individuals who were waiting for someone, with what appeared to be subdued expectation. Usagi, who sat on the steps, was flanked by Minako and Ami. Standing behind them, with her back leaning against the wall that was next to the saisen-bako, was Makoto. In front of them stood Mamoru, who had his hands in his pockets. Beside him sat two of the three guardian cats, Luna and Phoebe. A bit further out from them, dressed in the attire of a miko, was Rei. She was sweeping the sandō that led to the haiden, and had been working her way from the ground's entrance in order to meet up with them when she was finished — which she nearly was.
    Usagi stared out across the grounds, with her chin settled on the heels of her hands. She wasn't exactly looking forward to meeting any one of the four reincarnated Earth princesses. It wasn't because of who they had once been, but because of Phoebe's report on who they now were. (The report served as a basis for how they normally acted, in order to know whether they were putting on an act when interacting with them during the last part of the rite of succession.) The fact that all of the girls were not all that different from their past selves had robbed her of the hopeful interest that she had first held for what was soon to come.
    Regardless of what she thought and how she felt about it, the rite of succession would proceed as planned. It had been her mother's (Queen Serenity's) wish, who had made it clear to her during the Silver Millennium that the Earth's future — and that of its people — would be dependent on its own sailor senshi. Her duty as Sailor Moon was to protect the Earth and help guide its people, but her mother's words had suggested that there would be limits to what she could do. It was hard to imagine, considering all that she had been able to accomplish so far, but she had no reason to doubt her.
    She looked over at her future husband, Mamoru, and wondered how the rite of succession would affect him. Not for the first time did she wonder why he was the only male guardian of a celestial object, when every other guardian that she had ever met — which included other star systems — had been female. Could a planet like Earth have two guardians, even though the other life-bearing planets — that she knew about — had only one? Would the new sailor senshi replace him as the guardian of the Earth; and, if so, then for what purpose?
    She wished that she knew the answers to her questions. Unfortunately, many of the things that her mother had ever told her had only made sense in retrospect, during times when her words would prove to be invaluable to her. If that was going to be the case once more, then she hoped that nothing bad would happen to Mamoru. She couldn't be sure whether he would be fine or not, since the same person that had told her to not see Endymion (during the Silver Millennium) had also been the person who had been responsible for their reincarnation, so that they could be together. While her knowledge of the future was a bit reassuring, she knew that it wasn't written in stone.
    "I'm bored," Minako complained, as she leaned back on her elbows and looked up at the evening sky. She imagined all of the fun things that she could have been doing, instead of waiting for someone that she — quite frankly — had no interest in. "I wonder what Artemis is doing. He better not be having fun without me."
    Ami spoke up from behind a book on astrophysics. "I brought a few other books with me, if you'd like something to read."
    Minako made a face upon hearing that. "No thanks..."
    "I still wonder who we're waiting for," Makoto stated. Out of curiosity, she had decided to stand above the steps so she would have a better vantage point, for when the as-of-yet-known person ascended the stairs that led to the Hikawa shrine. She failed to suppress a shudder before she said, "I hope it's not Dysnomia..."
    "You'll know her when you see her," Phoebe spoke up. Well, she wasn't absolutely sure that said person would be a girl at the time of their arrival, but she had a feeling that she would be. "It's not like it really matters, does it?"
    When she received a few non-verbal agreements in response, she released a mental sigh of relief. If it hadn't been for the fact that no one was particularly enthusiastic about meeting either one of the four official candidates, then she probably wouldn't have gotten away with the last thing that she had said. Still, she was certain that some of them were wondering about her unwillingness to reveal the identity of the person that they would soon meet.
    Usagi was one such person. However, her thoughts quickly drifted to a related subject, concerning a person that she did not expect to see in the coming weeks, much less ever again: Hestia. Had she been reincarnated, then she would have been a lot more enthused about the rite of succession. Well, had Hestia ever been of the mind to be a part of it...
    Thoughts of Hestia made her feel ashamed. During the Silver Millennium she had been too enamored with Endymion to pay her much mind. By the time Hestia had set her up with the prince of the Golden Kingdom, the time that she should have spent with her had been relegated to secret rendezvous with him. And now she was gone, and she would never truly get to know her. Nor would she be able to thank her for the man that she thought of as a soul mate.
    She wasn't the only one who happened to be thinking about Hestia at that point and time. Anyone who knew Ami well enough would have been surprised to know that she was — at the moment, at least — pretending to read her book, as she recalled the well-studied princess and the engaging conversations that they had once shared. To date, she had been the only person that she had been able to relate to on such an intellectual level. While that had been nice, however, the princess had never spoken much about herself. Whenever she had tried to steer the conversation toward her, she had always been able to bring up something interesting to talk about, thus diverting her attention away. She wondered why she had been like that...
    Makoto noticed someone was about to crest the stairs, so she pushed herself away from the wall and peered at them more closely. What she saw made her rub her eyes. When that didn't change anything, she was stunned. "I see someone coming, but..."
    Everyone — with the exception of Luna and Phoebe — wondered what could have caused the look of shocked surprise on her face, so they directed their attention toward the person responsible for it. Because of that they failed to see the two guardian cats when they shared a nod and took off in different, opposing directions.
    Ami had been the last to get to her feet, of those who had been sitting on the steps, because she had to put her reading glasses away, bookmark her place in the book, then set it down with the two other books that she had brought. When she got a good look at who had drawn everyone's attention, she was in awe as she voiced the same question that was on all of their hope-filled minds. "Is that...?"

Chapter 8

    Ranma stood before the torii that marked the entrance to the Hikawa shrine, though not due to apprehension. Rather, she felt exasperated, considering how she had started her trip as a man and all of the effort that she had put into avoiding cold water. What really irked her was that she had been splashed by cold water just outside of her destination, seemingly out of nowhere. It had come down from above, in enough quantity to fill a bucket, yet she couldn't tell where it could have come from.
    With a sigh of resignation, she passed through the torii and began to ascend the stone stairway beyond it. It was just as well that she was a girl since she might have to be one for whatever awaited her, anyway. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that she had dressed up as a miko, and — knowing her luck — it likely wouldn't be the last. Still, if she could help someone, then it would be worth it. Even before she had remembered her life as Hestia, she had found it hard to resist aiding people who had really needed it, no matter how annoying or silly they were (or both).
    When she was able to look over the landing, and see across the length of the sandō, at first she didn't recognize the people in front of the haiden, who had spotted her. She was a step short of the landing when she noticed the expressions on their faces, which gave her a reason to pause. A few seconds later her eyes widened, as she realized just who they were.
    "No way," she thought, as the people in the distance inspired unbidden memories.
    She couldn't help looking at each face in turn, as she remembered her time spent with them in the past. Hestia had only had contact with them for a few months, but she had enjoyed them more than she had let on to anyone, lest she give them another excuse to try and convince her to accept her fate. She had been at the breaking point of her resolve when Juno, Minerva, Eos and Dysnomia had threatened to murder Hippolyta's mother, in addition to leaving evidence that would implicate her own kingdom as being the one behind it, if she didn't withdraw from the rite of succession. If not for that, she wouldn't have had the fortitude to go against the will of her parents, and she would have likely become a more willing candidate — anything to escape the amount of pressure that she had been under at the time.
    What really got to her — at present — was how much Mercury reminded her of Akane. Hestia had enjoyed Mercury's company most of all, and if not for her reluctance to become a sailor senshi she was sure that they could have become very close friends. The problem was that she now wondered if her willingness to be Akane's fiancé had stemmed from a subconscious part of her mind, a part that had picked up on the visual similarities between her and Mercury, and had — in turn — played upon her loneliness. Even before she had recalled her life as Hestia, she had wondered why she had put up with so much to be with Akane, and now — as she thought about it — it was apparent to her how irrational her attraction to her had really been.
    To say that she was just about at her wits' end was a gross understatement. "This can't be happening to me..."
    There was no good reason for her to go along with whatever Phoebe had planned for her, so she did an about-face, with the intention of leaving as quickly as she could. However, before she could take her first step, a masculine, human-sounding, "meow," made her freeze and look down.
    "Yo," Artemis greeted casually.
    Ranma screamed out in fright and immediately ran in the opposite direction, back toward the people that she had wanted to avoid. After the initial fright, however, she had enough presence of mind to try running in another direction. Unfortunately, when she tried to go left, she saw Phoebe heading toward her from that vector. She saw Luna when she looked in the other direction, and together with Phoebe and Artemis they kept to her three, six and nine o'clock, in order to herd her toward the only direction that remained. Feeling trapped, she began to scream and cry out with abandon as she ran.
    Usagi, along with the others, watched the proceedings with a mixture of shock, confusion and concern. To see a girl who looked like Hestia being chased — no, corralled — by the guardian cats had been unexpected enough, but to see her scared to death of them took it to another level entirely. What could possess their trusted advisors to do what they were doing, and for what purpose? The future queen of Crystal Tokyo didn't know what was going on, but it was clear enough that the redhead needed her help. Since the guardian cats seemed intent on bringing the girl to her, she raised her arms and spread them wide, in order to offer her a refuge from what she feared.
    Ranma saw the gesture, and in her current state of mind she didn't even think twice about turning down the invitation. Whenever her fear of cats robbed her of rational thought, she responded better to the promise of emotional comfort than she did to logical planning whenever it came to dealing with her emotional distress. Of course, that was due mostly to the fact that she was often incapable of thinking logically in the face of her greatest fear.
    Since she was all too eager to escape the guardian cats, she ended up knocking the wind out of Usagi when she dove into her arms, because the thought of slowing down first had been too silly of a concept for her to approve of. If Mamoru hadn't been behind her to act as a brace, or Makoto behind him to do the same, Usagi would have likely experienced a nasty spill. As it was, the three of them had barely managed to absorb the force of the collision and remain standing (in a fashion).
    While Usagi was busy recovering her breath, the guardian cats hadn't been idle. Before long they were standing close to Ranma, who — upon taking a chance to see if they were still around — quaked in fear and hugged Usagi tighter. This had the effect of making the odango-haired blonde within the redhead's arms unable to recover the breath that she would need to reproach the three guardian cats for their actions.
    "Ranma," Phoebe addressed her calmly, "if you promise to stay here and allow your friends to speak with you, we'll leave. So, do you promise?"
    Ranma was only too keen to agree with a rapid nodding of her head.
    "Good," came Phoebe's satisfied response, before she, Luna and Artemis left at a good canter.
    Everyone watched them leave in silence, not knowing what to say, yet realizing at least one reason that could be used to explain their behavior. Even so, no one approved of what had been done, and Usagi had every intention of chewing them out for it later. Whether the girl was a person of interest or not, to purposefully inspire so much fear in someone was wrong.
    Usagi looked down upon the redhead that she still held protectively in her arms. She was more relaxed, much to her relief, but she still shuddered on occasion. It was odd how small she seemed, since she was sure that they were about the same size — height-wise, at any rate. To see someone who looked like Hestia in such a state, who'd had so much poise and composure in the past, made her wonder what could have been responsible for engendering such a poignant reaction to cats.
    Her heart went out to her. "Are you alright?"
    Ranma responded by giving a small nod of her head, even though she was far from being sure about how she felt. She felt overwhelmed, to be sure, but whether for better or worse was still up in the air. On the one hand, her life had just become more complicated, and she could see no end of trouble in her future if she allowed more people from her past into her life. On the other hand, if the people around her were anything like their past counterparts, then perhaps she'd have something to look forward to, the risks and ramifications be damned.
    When she felt that she was ready for what was likely to come, she drew away from the blonde's embrace and took several steps back. Feeling embarrassed for her earlier display (even though she couldn't have helped it), it was with a modicum of reservation that she looked around at those before her, who regarded her with varying degrees of interest. Unfortunately, the potential revelation that she had thought of earlier, before being chased by the guardian cats, made it difficult for her to look in the direction of the girl who had short, blue hair; which — as a result — made her feel ashamed of herself.
    "I don't know where to begin, in order to apologize for what has happened," came Usagi's earnest entreaty, her clasped hands held against her chest. "But I won't hold you to the promise that was forced out of you. You're welcome to leave, if you want to; we'll understand."
    While her choice seemed obvious, Ranma still felt conflicted. The last thing that she needed was to get more involved with something that she didn't want to be any part of, or to be associated with people that could cause any number of problems with certain other people in her life. However, it was tempting to not dismiss the opportunity presented to her outright because it'd be nice to know some decent and relatively normal people who didn't want a piece out of her hide, or to own her like a piece of property (if the people in question were anything like their past incarnations, that is). Unfortunately, it was going to be hard enough to keep her awakened memories of Hestia a secret from the other girls in her life, and wanting to lead a double life with another group of people would just be asking for trouble.
    In the end, she decided that she couldn't leave without some kind of explanation. It would be better for both parties if she closed the door between them softly, instead of slamming it in their face. The last thing that she wanted was to risk having any one of them pursue her and impose themselves in her life back home, due to leaving too many things unresolved between them.
    She released a long-suffering sigh before she replied to the girl who looked like princess Serenity. "I appreciate the offer, but it's probably for the best that I stick around long enough to explain a few things."
    "Were you really Hestia?" Minako suddenly blurted out.
    Ranma shrugged her shoulders. "More or less. It's... complicated."
    Before anyone could question what she meant by that, Usagi began introductions. "It's nice to meet you... Ranma, was it?" When she received a nod of confirmation, along with a surname, she smiled and said, "I'm Tsukino Usagi, though you may remember me as a somewhat... distracted princess."
    Rei snorted at that description. "You say that as if you've changed."
    Usagi crossed her arms and pouted. "But I have!"
    Before things could degenerate from that point, thus causing them to become sidetracked, Mamoru smiled disarmingly and stepped up to Ranma with his hand held out. "Chiba Mamoru."
    Ranma returned the smile and shook his hand, missing the odd look that briefly crossed his visage when she did so. "Are you two," her eyes flickered over to Usagi before returning her attention to him, "still together?"
    Usagi happily latched onto Mamoru's free arm in reply, much to his embarrassment. "Of course! We were meant for each other!"
    Rei rolled her eyes, but withheld comment. Instead, she spared the redhead a small smile and a slight bow in greeting. "I'm Hino Rei. If you need anything while you're here, just ask."
    "I'm Kino Makoto," said person spoke up, who couldn't suppress an expectant grin. "I hope you've retained Hestia's culinary skills. There's only one person my age that I've been able to cook and trade recipes with, and I don't get to see her often enough."
    Ranma shrugged her shoulders. "I haven't had the chance to cook anything yet, but I'm sure that I haven't forgotten anything."
    "Hi!" Came Minako's exuberant greeting, who appeared to be in a particularly good mood. "I'm Aino Minako."
    Ami, being more reserved than the others, spoke softly after she raised her hand and wriggled her fingers a bit. "Mizuno Ami. I'm... glad to see that you weren't lost to us."
    Usagi noticed that Ami's comment had made Ranma uncomfortable, so she decided to get right to the heart of the matter, now that they were finished with introductions. "Judging by what happened, I'm guessing that your feelings about becoming a sailor senshi haven't changed." When she received a nod in response, her face fell, and Minako lost her smile. "As sad as that makes me, I'll respect your decision." She perked up a bit. "At least we can spend time together for other reasons."
    Ranma released a tired sigh. "About that..."
    "There's something that I need to tell you," she addressed everyone, "in order for you to understand why I can't be seen with you until the rite of succession has passed, at the very least. It requires showing you something as well, so," she turned her attention to Rei, "could you please bring me two cups, one filled with hot water and the other with cold?"
    Confused, but not knowing what to say, Rei complied with her request and left to fetch what was needed. A few of the others exchanged glances, wondering about the request and how it could be relevant to whatever needed to be explained. One of them didn't have the patience to wait and find out.
    "Why do you need hot and cold water?" Minako asked.
    Ranma smiled wanly and said, "You'll just have to wait and see," which earned her a pout and a look of disappointment. It was a response that was a lot better than the one that she expected to see once the body that she had been born with was revealed to her: because Venus had had a tendency to fall head over heels in love with attractive guys as if they had been going out of style, and she assumed that that hadn't changed. While she didn't need the cold water for her explanation, she figured that she would be better off spending as little time as a guy in her presence as possible, in order to lessen the chance of anything unwanted that could result from it. That, and sometimes a second demonstration was required if the result of the first one happened to be too unexpected or unbelievable to whomever happened to be present for it.
    When Rei returned, she had a cup in each hand instead of her broom, which she had left back at the house. After she gave the water to a grateful Ranma, she rejoined the others and waited for what would happen next. She was eager to find out what the water was for, though she hid it behind a calm yet mildly interested facade.
    Deciding against holding her audience in suspense for too long, Ranma considered her words before saying, "What I'm about to tell you is bound to raise questions, so I ask that you don't interrupt me because I'm only going to say what I feel needs to be said. It's not so much a matter of distrust as it is my business and time. You might understand once I'm finished, so please be patient."
    When it appeared that they were in agreement with her request, even if some were reluctant to do so, she began her explanation in earnest. "To start with: I wasn't born a girl." That elicited a lot of confusion and disbelief, though Rei and Makoto also looked like they wanted to refute that statement. "You see, I picked up a curse that changes my sex each time I'm exposed to water, depending on whether it's hot or cold. With cold water, I change into my cursed form; with hot, I return to the body that I was born with." She raised one of the cups above her head and said, "this is hot water," before she poured said hot water over her — now his — head.
    He took in their reaction, and wasn't surprised to see that they were all shocked. That soon gave way to wonder as the implications began to set in. However, much to his dismay, not only did Minako begin to look at him with unabashed desire, but so did Makoto. Even Usagi had begun to show some of the same kind of interest in him, which had earned her a nudge and a comical look of betrayal from Mamoru.
    With the prospect of having more than just Minako to worry about, he quickly made use of the cold water and continued from where she had left off. "My curse is what makes my having been Hestia complicated, because I have obligations as a man. One such obligation concerns an arranged marriage, and I can't fulfill that if I were to decide to live life as a girl, much less become a sailor senshi."
    "But that just explains why I'm not keen on living a double life, or entering into the rite of succession." She paused and looked up at the evening sky, subdued in thought, before she returned her attention to her audience with exactly what she wanted to say. "As it turns out, all four of the other Earth princesses are romantically interested in me, as a guy, and three of them have been actively trying to 'win me over' for a while now."
    She waited a bit to allow that information to sink in, and the various degrees of incredulity and skepticism — combined or otherwise — being expressed on the faces of her audience had been far from unexpected. "Yeah, I know. And if that's not bad enough, three of them know that I'm Hestia; just not that I'm aware of it. The only one that doesn't know I'm one and the same person, Kodachi (Dysnomia, if that helps), has already tried to kill me twice: one time indirectly and the other directly, the latter with her believing that I had been awakened."
    Seeing the expressions on their faces, she knew that they were beginning to connect the dots, or had connected them already. "I'm sure you can understand why I can't be seen with you. The last thing that I need is for them to realize that I've awakened, thinking that I'm trying to take away their chance of becoming the sailor senshi of the Earth behind their backs."
    "So," she regretfully concluded, "it'd be a bad idea for me to spend any time with you. If I'd known that you'd be here, I wouldn't have even come. No offense, but I've got enough problems as it is."
    "I understand," Usagi replied, with a mixture of sympathy and disappointment. "Just don't forget that we'll be here for you, should you ever need us for anything. Even if it's just to talk."
    The others silently conveyed the same sentiment.
    Ranma didn't trust her voice, so she nodded her head in response to that. Then she turned around and began to walk away without offering a proper goodbye, because she feared that her face — in addition to her voice — might give away how she felt if she were to stay there for too long. She didn't want to give them a reason to worry about her any more than was necessary; certainly not to the extent that they might decide to get involved and do something that could potentially make her situation worse.
    Usagi, along with the others, were silent and subdued as they watched her depart. Mamoru, who was sensitive to the mood of the one he loved, placed an arm around her in order to provide some measure of comfort. He felt that he probably needed her presence as much as she needed his because — as it just so happened — coming into contact with the girl that had once been Hestia had revealed a lot of hidden suffering. With Usagi at his side, he could only hope that Ranma found whatever kind of succor that she seemed determined to find on her own.
    "She never seems to catch a break," Makoto commented.
    Minako shook her head in disbelief. "Another arranged marriage... And in this day and age."
    Rei crossed her arms, as her piercing gaze followed Ranma's progress. "I get the impression that she wasn't telling us everything."
    "She never was one for talking about herself," Ami quietly chipped in. "I wouldn't say that she is secretive, but..."
    With a determined look on her face, Makoto held up a fist and said, "We should do something to help her."
    "I'd like to do that and more," Usagi admitted, a pained look on her face, "but we might end up doing more harm than good. For now we should respect what she wants and hope that she never needs our help, and be ready to give it should the need ever arise."
    Makoto and Minako openly showed their disappointment on their faces, while Ami appeared both sad and resigned. Rei's face may have betrayed how she felt about it, had she not been distracted by the guardian cats as they made their way toward them. She frowned and made the others aware of them, seeing as they were yet another matter that required their attention.
    Usagi, who was rather displeased with the three guardian cats, disengaged from her boyfriend and approached them. When she was standing before them, with her arms akimbo and her eyes narrowed, she said, "You better have a good reason for doing what you did."
    "We believe that we do," Phoebe answered resolutely, who was flanked by an equally-determined Luna and Artemis. "And if we're right, then Ranma will become the sailor senshi of the Earth."
    Usagi looked both surprised and confused, and she wasn't the only one present to feel that way. "But... She's not a candidate."
    "That's right," Rei agreed, who eyed the three guardian cats skeptically.
    Luna sighed. "It's not that simple."
    "Is there something that you haven't told us?" Mamoru calmly asked.
    "It's more accurate to say that it has only been inferred," Phoebe corrected. "When the Earth chooses who her sailor senshi will be, it will be done with as much consideration as any one of us are capable of."
    Usagi blinked her eyes confusedly. "So that means..."
    "What I think she's trying to say," Ami spoke up, "is that the Earth is sentient; it can think for itself."
    Phoebe nodded her head. "Correct."
    Makoto looked incredulous. "If that's true, then why bother with the rite of succession?"
    "More importantly," Usagi cut in, "how can you be sure that Ranma is the one that the Earth will choose?"
    Artemis decided to field their questions. "To answer the first question: it was politics. There was little trust between the kingdoms of Earth and the Moon Kingdom, and Queen Serenity had known that the repercussions would have been bad for everyone involved had she taken the matter into her own hands. It was better to make the ruling families of the Earth think that they had a chance to secure a sailor senshi for themselves, for whatever reason they had for wanting to. While those people are no more, Queen Serenity's will lives on, and she wants the rite of succession to continue."
    Usagi couldn't help feeling guilty upon hearing the last part of what Artemis had said. She had been so caught up with protecting the Earth from one threat after the next, and trying to lead a normal life during and between those times, that she had completely forgotten the fact that her mother (from her previous life) still lived. Well, she no longer had a living body, but her will — her heart and mind — still existed in a computer, which was just as important as a living body when determining whether something lived or not. It also didn't help that she wanted to live on Earth, with Mamoru, instead of reviving the Moon Kingdom on the moon.
    "To answer the second question," Artemis continued, "not only was Hestia reincarnated by Queen Serenity (even though she was no longer recognized as a candidate), but Ranma went to Jusenkyo — which was the site of Hestia's death — and fell into the spring that had robbed him of the body that he should have been reborn with in the first place. Also, just a bit ago, while I was hiding and waiting for Ranma to arrive, I witnessed something that convinces us further: I saw a ball of water take form above his head, from out of nowhere, and it activated his curse right in front of the entrance to these grounds. We can't do that, you weren't aware that he was coming, and the only other people that could have done it (that we know of) would not have done him such a favor, had they known about this. That leaves the Earth as the most likely suspect."
    A silence descended upon the group as they mulled over the new information, though it didn't last long because Minako decided to bring up an issue that had crossed most of everyone's minds. "But Hestia — er, Ranma — doesn't want to be a sailor senshi..."
    "We can't be sure that that will be the case," Mamoru opined, before he brought his attention to the three guardian cats. "And it still doesn't explain what you had tried to accomplish by bringing Ranma here."
    Phoebe smiled wryly at his astuteness. "We figured that — if we were right — the Earth might make her choice now, before you all, instead of waiting for the ceremony that would conclude the rite of succession. I don't presume to know how the Earth thinks, but perhaps she is waiting for Queen Serenity's sake."
    Usagi turned her gaze skyward, as she considered everything that she had learned, and thought, "I guess there's only one way to find out for sure." Then she regarded the guardian cats with a frown and told them, "Well, regardless of your reason for doing what you did, it doesn't excuse your actions. While I try to come up with a suitable punishment, I expect you to think about what you did and why you shouldn't do it again."
    The three guardian cats bowed their heads in deference to their future queen, having expected as much.

    Even though the sun had set, and her stomach demanded to be filled, Ranma had decided to take a roundabout way back home from the train station. Not only was it due to the fact that she wasn't sure whether she would be ready to hide what was bothering her from those that she lived with, but she also needed more time to think about what had happened and what it could mean.
    Sure, she supposed that Usagi might be able to mind her own business, but that could just be wishful thinking on her part. Things change, after all; and she knew that better than most. A recent example was Phoebe's betrayal of her trust, not to mention how she had taken advantage of her ailurophobia. To think that she would do something like that to her... And while that made her angry, what she mostly felt was the sadness of having to add yet another person to a long list of people that she needed to be suspicious of, to one degree or another.
    Unfortunately, now that they knew that she was alive, there was no telling what they might do in the future. Even once the rite of succession is finished, and a sailor senshi is chosen for the Earth, being in contact with them could still cause problems should four particular girls find out and become jealous (since three of them definitely posed a lethal threat), which would likely lead to those same girls finding out that she was aware of who she had been in her past life.
    What she really wanted to know was why Phoebe had her meet with Usagi and the others in the first place. It wasn't like the guardian cat knew how she felt about them, so she couldn't have staged the meeting to capitalize on her feelings. Considering what had happened, and how she had been able to walk away without committing to anything, it was safe to assume that the little furball had no idea. Still, the main reason for why she needed more time away from home was due to having met those from her past life in person; seeing them, hearing them, and even touching them. Had she only been told that they were alive, she wouldn't have been affected so greatly. (That's what she told herself, anyway.)
    A familiar presence made her look up. Across the street, on the roof of a hardware store, stood someone that she wasn't exactly in any mood to see. "Old ghoul."
    Cologne leapt from the roof and landed in the middle of the street with an ease that belied much more than her age. "Here you are. I've been looking for you, son-in-law."
    Ranma regarded her warily. "Well, you found me. You can go, now."
    Cologne cackled with amusement and dismounted from her staff. "Now why would I want to do that," she paused to look Ranma square in the eye, "princess?"
    Ranma did her best to hide her surprise from her face. "Princess? You haven't gotten to that age, have you?"
    That got a frown out of Cologne. "I assure you that I learned how to identify people by looking at their auras when I was young." She thrust her staff out, with its end pointing at Ranma's head. "You're just like the others. When I saw how so many of the girls around you had changed, I suspected that it would only be a matter of time before it happened to you, too. It seems that I was right."
    Ranma closed her eyes and resigned herself to the fact that she wouldn't be able to deny that she had changed. Then she opened her eyes and glanced around, to make sure that no one was within earshot. Seeing that the few people that walked the same street weren't anywhere near them, and seemed quite ordinary, she returned her attention to the person who was anything but ordinary. "Okay. What do you want?"
    After pulling her staff back, Cologne moved to join Ranma on the sidewalk, so she wouldn't stand out as much as she did in the middle of the street. "I only wish to speak with you." Once she was at the redhead's side, she asked, "Do you know how our village came to be?"
    Ranma thought that it was an odd question to ask at that time, but — seeing as she didn't know — she shook her head in response to it anyway.
    "We were a nomadic people, once," Cologne informed her. "It was a long time ago; definitely before our oldest existing record, which shows that we have been around for at least three-thousand years. Now, why our people became sedentary is still up for debate, because there is no written account that exists to explain it. However, there's an old bedtime story that is still passed down by a few families in our village, which might be an actual record of what happened."
    She looked up to study the face of her audience of one. "In it, a great chaos descends upon the tribe, and more than half of its people are killed fighting each other, seemingly for no reason at all." She took note of the wince that her words evoked, but didn't say anything about it. "Their princess was also among those slain, at a place that was referred to as being 'the pools of sorrow,' which is known to us now as Jusenkyo. There was much to grieve about, but a vision came to the queen one night, a vision that offered the tribe hope and solace."
    "It was from the Earth Mother," she stated, observing how the redhead's body had stiffened. "The Earth Mother said that the queen's beloved daughter would one day walk upon the land once more, except that it would not be on their land. However, should they settle down and keep a vigil over the pools of sorrow, the princess' little sister would come forth and lead them to her."
    When it seemed like there wasn't any more to the tale, Ranma nervously said, "Nice story."
    Cologne smiled wryly in return, but her expression quickly became serious once again. "Perhaps it is. However, one thing that is not a story, is our worship of the Earth Mother. Sometimes she gives us visions, though that may happen once every other generation — usually more. For those of us seeking direction, sometimes she gives advice through our inner voice. Most common, however, is feeling when her hand has influenced something in our lives."
    Ranma was almost too afraid to ask, "Just what are you getting at?"
    "Two things," Cologne casually replied. "I'm certain that you are the 'little sister' spoken of in the 'story.'" She gave Ranma a pointed look. "The only question that remains is: who is the princess?"
    "And what would you do if you knew who it was?" Ranma queried guardedly.
    Cologne looked up thoughtfully. "Oh, nothing worth being worried about. I'd certainly like to know about her fighting style and whatever techniques she might know, for obvious reasons."
    Ranma nodded her head in understanding.
    "Depending on who she is," Cologne continued, "I might ask if she would be willing to come to our village, perhaps to be adopted. If the Earth Mother thought it important to have our people settle down and wait for her for this long, then I imagine that it would have been for a good reason."
    Ranma took a moment to consider her answer, since there didn't seem to be any point in denying who she was, or who she knew. "I suppose I could ask if she's interested..."
    Cologne bowed her head in gratitude. "That would be fine. Now, as for the other thing I was getting at..."
    Seeing the grim expression on the old woman's face, Ranma gulped. She had a feeling that she was getting to the part that she had feared. "Yeah...?"
    "You," Cologne paused for effect, "are going to become the Earth's sailor senshi."
    Ranma stepped away and shook her head in denial. "No way. I'm not even a candidate!"
    "And yet I feel that the Earth Mother has had a hand in your life," Cologne calmly pointed out. "Considering the timing that I was made aware of it, your awakening, and your relationship with the other girls, what other reason could she have for paying you any attention, instead of them?"
    "Maybe you were just imagining things?" Ranma offered hopefully.
    Cologne sighed and regarded the unfortunate girl with a sympathetic expression on her face. "I can imagine why you might not want to become a sailor senshi, and perhaps there's more to it than I can think of, but it won't do you any good to be unprepared for the possibility. If there's one time that you should listen to this old woman's advice, I suggest that you do so now."
    Ranma bowed her head and stared down at the ground. Then she clenched her hands into fists and closed her eyes, as she fought back against the things that wanted to escape from her: tears, screams, dignity, control over her anger (and the property damage that would no doubt follow); all of it. She never seemed to catch a break. And just when she thought that things couldn't have gotten any worse, after meeting the others from her past life...
    She felt something touch her leg. When she opened her eyes and looked, she saw Cologne's wrinkled hand resting against it while said person gazed up at her with a look of compassion. (Or what passed for it on her aged visage, at any rate. It would have been more endearing if it hadn't looked so, well... ghoulish.)
    "Take heart, child," Cologne comforted. "If what I suspect comes to pass, at least you'll be in good hands."
    Something between a choke and a snort was elicited from Ranma, who turned her head away as she tried to regain her composure. "I seriously doubt it."
    Cologne studied her for a moment before she began to walk away, back into the street, which had been inspired by what she could only assume to be the will of the Earth Mother. "It's all a matter of perspective," she tossed over her shoulder without thought, before she found herself stopping to turn around and regard Ranma once more, this time with a neutral expression on her face. "You know, there are many problems in this world, both real and imagined. Which one of the two are yours, I wonder?"
    Before Ranma could respond to that enigmatic remark, the one who had made it was already soaring through the air, on a trajectory that would take her well beyond the buildings along the other side of the street. She stared after her for a time, considering her parting words, before she shook her head and disregarded them. As far as she was concerned, what the old ghoul had shared with her had only given her a reason to think that things might yet take another turn for the worse. And if they did...
    "I don't know what I'll do..." Was her somber thought on the matter.
    Unbeknownst to her, as she continued her meandering trek toward home, now even more preoccupied by her thoughts than she had been before her conversation with Cologne, Nabiki was in the process of digesting all that she had heard from behind a nearby corner. When she had abandoned her friends to follow the redhead, perhaps to find a clue as to where she had gone, she hadn't expected — though a part of her mind had hoped — to find out more about what was going on with her and the other girls.
    From what she had gathered, not only was Ranma a princess (with the possibility of the other girls being princesses, as well), but she might even become a sailor senshi... a sailor senshi. Such a thing was so momentous, so ripe for taking advantage of, that it made her head spin. Automatically, she thought about blackmailing the redhead in order to assure her silence, or selling the information once she did become a sailor senshi, since there would no doubt be a news organization willing to pay someone handsomely for such a scoop.
    Then she shook her head, and considered things more rationally. First and foremost, of course, was the fact that there was no guarantee that Ranma would become a sailor senshi. In fact, if she had drawn the right conclusion from what she now knew, then she wasn't the only one that could become one. Then there were the short-term and the long-term benefits to think about, and her previous thoughts on the matter had only delved into the former.
    For this situation she decided that she would be better off focusing on the long-term benefits. Whether a princess or a sailor senshi, it would be to her advantage to be on their good side; especially if they weren't Ranma, since she had a greater tolerance for her behavior and had more scruples when it came to violence toward the fairer sex, whereas the others were unlikely to be so kind. And once she was in their good graces there would be all kinds of possible ways to benefit from it... Even if they didn't turn out to be rich, powerful (in the political sense) or otherwise useful, she could simply fall back on selling their identity. It would be a win-win situation so long as they never found out that she had been the one to sell them out, and she figured that she could get away with that with careful planning.
    With her mind made up, and her course of action decided, she began to make her way home, taking a more direct route than a certain pigtailed house guest. She had a lot of plans to make if she wanted her latest investment to be both profitable and worthwhile, and it would be better to work on her prey before they became a sailor senshi, rather than after the fact. She didn't think that it would be all that difficult to get on their good sides... That's what she hoped for in regard to most of them, at least, because she wasn't even sure if she wanted to bother with Kodachi.
    She shuddered at the thought.

Chapter 9

    When Usagi was certain that Luna was asleep at the foot of her bed, she slipped out from beneath her covers as carefully and quietly as she could and sat up on the side that faced her bedroom window. From there she stood up and opened it, once again making a painstaking effort to not disturb the slumbering feline. She was greeted by a mild and warm breeze, which was perfect for an early Autumn night.
    After she finished climbing onto the window sill, she took one last look at Luna before she jumped. She activated her transformation in midair, and in a flash of light her pajamas were replaced by her sailor senshi uniform. With her angelic wings spread out wide while she hovered in the air, she took the time to angle her body toward the largest and brightest object in the night sky before taking off like a rocket.
    It only took her a few seconds to reach the moon, and what she found there reminded her of how things had changed. Instead of the ruins that she had seen during her first visit (as far as her present life was concerned), the palace and the grounds in the immediate vicinity were completely restored, just like they had been during her second — and last — visit. On the one hand, it was nice to see the home from her past life back in good repair; on the other hand, she was a bit nervous because of what she intended to do once inside.
    As soon as she alighted upon the broad path that connected the palace entrance to the long and winding stairway, the lampposts lining the stairway and the path lit up, along with various lights both outside and inside of the palace. She paused to take in the sight, wondering what it meant, before she cautiously approached the palace, not knowing exactly what to expect.
    Once she was inside of the palace and navigating her way to her destination, she couldn't help feeling a bit nostalgic. Down one hall she saw herself as a child, being chased by a vexed servant. Down another, she was being dressed down by her four guardian sailor senshi — particularly Mercury — for putting off her studies. When she saw the door to her old room, she remembered all of the time that she had once spent wistfully spying on the prince of the Golden Kingdom.
    It wasn't long before she found herself standing outside of the Prayer Room, where she paused momentarily in order to prepare herself for what she expected to find within. Once she thought that she was ready, she opened the double doors and entered the room, which was taller than it was wide so as to accommodate the Crystal Tower that was located at its center. With her ultimate destination within sight, she walked up to it.
    When she stood before the Crystal Tower, she reached out with her hand to touch it... then stopped. She pulled her hand back and held it to her chest, as she recalled the amount of importance that her mother (Queen Serenity) had placed upon the object before her, and how many times she had sequestered herself in the Prayer Room to, well, pray to it. Her mother hadn't allowed anyone but herself to enter the room; not even her own daughter. She decided that it would be best to try and get in touch with her mother instead of messing with something that she didn't really understand.
    However, before she could call out to her, since she was where she had last seen her, she heard a familiar voice ask, "Does it look familiar?"
    She whirled around to face the voice's source and gasped in surprise at what she saw: her mother, Queen Serenity. That in itself wasn't surprising, but the fact that she was life-sized and opaque — however — was. She looked deceptively solid, real, as if she were alive rather than a projection created by a computer. The urge to touch her, to make sure that she wasn't seeing things, began to rise amidst her growing confusion.
    She didn't know what to say or do in light of this unexpected development. "What? You..."
    Serenity seemed amused by her reaction, and began to walk toward her... then around and beyond. She was so caught up by her approach that, as she turned and watched her walk by, she almost missed the sound of hard-soled footfalls against an equally-hard floor, which no hologram would have been able to do. But she definitely noticed when her mother's hand rested upon the Crystal Tower, where she saw the soft flesh of her hand give under the light pressure that was being applied there.
    Serenity regarded her daughter with a patient smile. "You've seen this crystal somewhere else, haven't you?"
    Usagi was torn between answering her question and raising a few of her own, as well as trying to touch her to see if she was real; and, if so, to spend time hugging her as if her life depended on it. In the end her confusion and curiosity got the better of her because she wanted to understand the reason for her mother's question, and the best way of doing that was by trying to answer it.
    The first example that came to mind was of the time she had seen her future self encased in the same kind of crystal that the Crystal Tower had been made out of. That led her to remembering how Crystal Tokyo — as the name implied — used a lot of the crystal beyond the palace itself. Which — in turn — reminded her of the time when the enemy had made the city a sweltering jungle, and the same kind of crystal had covered the city to counter it. The same crystal had also contained the shrine maidens at the shrine in Elysium, in order to keep them safe from Queen Nephrenia's curse. In fact, hadn't Helios said that she and Mamoru shared the same power in addition to having a common mission?
    Seeing the look of realization that had appeared on her daughter's face, Serenity nodded her head. "That's right: the crystal from the Ginzuishou and the crystal from the Earth are one and the same, and from the same source." She turned her head toward the Crystal Tower. "It was through this Crystal Tower, an extension of Gaea herself, that I was able to communicate with her." She returned her attention to her daughter, with a serious expression on her face. "And with her permission, she entrusted the Ginzuishou — the moon's sailor crystal — to me and my offspring. Do you remember our purpose?"
    Usagi didn't know how she could ever forget it. "To safeguard the Ginzuishou, protect the Earth from evil, and to watch over and guide its people on the path of good."
    Serenity smiled once more. "Correct. You see, the moon, like most other celestial objects in our solar system, are vulnerable because they are lifeless. This is because those places that don't bear life have no will of their own, so anyone who has the knowledge required to create sailor senshi can do so without resistance, with that sailor senshi essentially becoming the will of whatever they're connected to. The moon, on the other hand, is connected to the Earth, a life-bearing planet that has a very strong will and," she chuckled, "quite a personality. In particular, it takes a lot to gain her trust. That aside, the moon is still an individual in addition to having no life of its own, so any amount of protection isn't guaranteed to prevent outside forces from leeching the Earth's energy through the moon, which I'm sure you've seen happen more than once. While only a little can be drained at a time, with the proper precautions set up, it could still endanger the Earth if it's allowed to go on for too long. That's why I eventually found young orphans on Earth and did what was necessary to ascend them into the role of sailor senshi, in order to provide more protection for the Ginzuishou."
    "The reason why I'm telling you this, my daughter," she continued, becoming more somber, "is because it has become time for you to know. Before now, I hid the fact that I was anything more than a memory in a computer because I needed you to grow up, to become more independent and self-reliant, strong, and to be recognized as the leader of the other sailor senshi. You also needed to learn how to use your heart on your own, in order to wield the Ginzuishou's full potential. In truth, I know why you're here, and what you're thinking, because I have become the moon's will. In effect, I am the guardian of the Ginzuishou's power, the sailor crystal that we have sworn to protect."
    Usagi didn't know what to say, in part because she was still trying to wrap her mind around — and absorb — everything that she had just been told. She had wondered on more than one occasion why the other sailor senshi had guardians for their sailor senshi powers while she didn't, only to find out — now — that she'd had one all along, and that it was none other than her own mother. The thought made her feel a bit dizzy.
    "I know it's a lot to take in," Serenity said, apologetically, "but there's more that I need to tell you, regarding your reason for coming here." Once she saw that her daughter had become more focused, after hearing those words, she continued. "You wonder whether Ranma will be chosen, even though she's not a candidate, and your concern is well-founded: because she will be."
    Usagi blinked her eyes confusedly. "But... why?"
    "Like I said," Serenity answered, "Gaea has quite a personality. This is due in part to the fact that she's a bit childish, as far as life-bearing planets are concerned. And since she already has it in mind to choose Ranma, she takes it personally whenever she's mistreated. So, not only does she not like the other candidates, she wants them to think that they have a chance in order to dash their dreams and — by doing so — teach them a lesson. And while she thinks that Ranma with Hestia's memories is an improvement on both Ranma and Hestia by themselves, she will make Ranma a sailor senshi against her will because she wishes to teach her something that is intended to improve her further."
    Usagi was shocked, as her long-standing image of what a "Mother Earth" should be like made like a battleship and sank. "That's..."
    "I know," Serenity sighed. "Gaea and I have become close friends, but she still calls me an old fuddy-duddy for placing so much importance on doing the 'right' thing, despite how much my methods have benefited her." She shook her head before smiling softly. "But don't think too badly of her: we all have our own ways of showing love, teaching lessons and doling out punishments; and she is no different."
    "Still..." Usagi voiced, as she bit her bottom lip.
    "Just be there for her when the time comes," Serenity suggested, before she raised her arms to waist level and gestured for her daughter to step into her waiting embrace. "Now, I believe that I've been delaying this long enough."
    Usagi wasted little time in accepting the invitation, yet her heart wasn't fully in it. She was still worried about Ranma, in no small part due to what Mamoru had told her in regard to what he had picked up from her with his psychoscopic ability, after they had separated from the others. That was why she had decided to seek out her mother in secret, so that the other girls wouldn't have to be burdened by whatever she might have learned, should there have been any reason for concern — and there was.
    "You still worry," Serenity murmured. "'Why Ranma,' you ask? 'Why now?'" She leant back far enough so she could look down into her daughter's eyes. "Gaea is very picky, I'm afraid. Not only in regard to character, but in physical appearance, as well. Our dear Ranma not only has what she considers to be the ideal body, but she's not looking for some kind of paragon, or even someone who's interested in being a sailor senshi (and thus whatever kind of agenda they might attach to it). She desires a balance of assets and flaws, someone who will — for the most part — allow nature to take its course."
    Usagi sighed and rested her head against her mother's chest once more. "That sounds so... strange, I guess. I have two mothers that have wanted me to be good in whatever I did, and I don't know any other parents that aren't like that, too. To think that someone like Gaea would be interested in something that's average..."
    Serenity smiled with amusement, which touched upon her voice. "It all depends on one's needs, my child. You, after all, are fairly specialized: doing well in some things yet not so well in others. Even — or especially — because of that, Gaea likes you, and is very grateful for all of your hard work and sacrifice; and at such a young age, too. In fact, she eagerly anticipates the time when you are ready to become queen and make Crystal Tokyo a reality."
    Usagi held her mother just a bit tighter. "Will I ever get to meet Gaea?"
    "Soon," Serenity replied. She raised her head and appeared to be listening to something that only she could hear. "Very soon."

    Sweat dripped from Ranma's brow as he continued to practice his forms. He had his eyes closed, though that didn't hinder the graceful and sure movements of his limbs and torso. On some level he knew that he was tiring out, but the time for thinking about his problems had passed; now he only desired to empty his mind, to forget about the world around him for a time.
    However, as with most things, it wouldn't last long enough. The knocking on the door — though gentle — might as well have been machine gun fire compared to the rhythmic thumping of his bare feet upon the floor, which he had long ago gotten used to and filtered out. So he stopped, wiped the sleeve of his white dōgi across his brow, and began to catch his breath.
    "Come in," he finally said, as he opened his eyes and glanced at the door.
    The door opened to reveal Kasumi, who stepped inside before she closed the door behind herself with a deliberate motion. Then she stood there, studying him with a worried look on her face, and fidgeted a bit with uncertainty. He found that troubling because he was almost certain that he hadn't given anything away when he had last seen her, just prior to leaving for the dojo.
    He couldn't take the waiting any longer, so he tried to play innocent. "What? Is something on my face?"
    "Oh, Ranma," Kasumi sighed, her concern being fully expressed. "It's... Well, you remember how Hippolyta's tribe worshipped the—"
    "Earth Mother?" Ranma interjected, before he took his own turn to sigh. "Yeah. I ran into Cologne on my way home..." He tried to act nonchalant as he looked off to the side and asked, "Were you about to suggest that I might be the one to become the Earth's sailor senshi?"
    Kasumi answered with a reluctant nod.
    Ranma shook his head with some disbelief and got ready to practice more of his forms. He was hoping to tire himself out enough so he would fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, thus denying him any time to think while awaiting slumber. If he didn't get a break from his current troubles, he felt that he might just explode — or, perhaps, implode; he wasn't quite sure what the difference would be.
    He was about to start practicing again when he paused and recalled something related to what Kasumi had brought up. "Oh, right, I almost forgot. The old ghoul's interested in seeing you, as the former princess of their tribe; although she doesn't know that it's you. She's interested in learning your fighting style and techniques, probably in the hope of bringing something from a lost art back into her tribe. Since it's you, she'll probably ask you to return to the village with her, too."
    "I see," Kasumi softly replied.
    She probably would have put some thought into Ranma's message right then and there, but she was still worried about him. And when she saw an opportunity to help him, by joining in with what he was doing to take his mind off of what was bothering him (just as Hippolyta had done with Hestia), she found herself moving toward him before she was consciously aware of it.
    When Ranma saw her begin to practice one of Hippolyta's own forms beside him, as he practiced his own, he managed to smile. "Is this the first time you've 'danced' in a dress?"
    Kasumi's cheeks colored. "It couldn't be helped." Then she looked over at him and grinned. "Besides, it has been a while, hasn't it?"
    "Depends on how you look at it, I guess," Ranma replied, as he adjusted to match her movements, which Hestia had known well enough. "The last time we did this could be measured in the days since we awoke, the years since we've been reborn, or the millennia since we died."
    "Do you still consider this to be dancing?" Kasumi suddenly asked.
    Ranma's face clouded over as he considered the loaded question. Hestia had been against violence because she had strongly believed that it accomplished nothing; and if not nothing, then whatever it did accomplish would likely not be an improvement. He believed that she was right, considering his own experiences with violent people, but only to a point. After all, how can one properly ward against violence without at least being familiar with it? She had believed in self-defense, but without knowing how to use force to counter another force...
    "Not really," he decided. "Strength and skill has its uses, so this is practice. I can't think of this as being exercise for the sake of exercise and spending time with a friend, though I won't complain if that's a part of it."
    They continued in companionable silence, practicing the forms that Hestia had learned from Hippolyta since Kasumi didn't know any of Ranma's. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before they were interrupted by the sound of the door sliding open and the appearance of Nabiki, who seemed far too casual about her entrance as she leaned back against the doorjamb. While Ranma pretended that nothing was amiss, and carried on with his current activity, Kasumi had to stop and collect herself.
    "Nabiki," Kasumi said as innocently as she could, as she smoothed out the front of her dress. "I thought you went to bed."
    Nabiki waved aside what her sister had said with a gesture of her hand. "You can cut out the act: I have a pretty good idea of what's going on."
    Ranma ceased practicing his forms and sighed. "I thought I told you to not look into what was going on?"
    "Correction," Nabiki answered with a smirk, "you only suggested that I don't, not that I shouldn't."
    "It was implied," Ranma stated, as he frowned at her.
    Nabiki gazed at him impassively. "And I had every intention of listening to your advice. But it's not like I chose for Cologne to arrive and talk to you while I was following you, much less have any control over what she said."
    Kasumi looked worried. "Oh, Nabiki, tell me you're not going to do what I think you're going to do."
    Nabiki shrugged her shoulders. "Okay. I'm not going to do that."
    Ranma and Kasumi stared at her blankly, in light of the unexpected answer.
    "Actually," Nabiki continued, "I had something else in mind."
    It had taken her the better part of an hour to concoct the idea, too. Considering what she had overheard from Cologne, and Ranma's track record, he had the greatest chance of becoming the sailor senshi of the Earth, and thus required special attention. Whether or not the Ranma of today was a different person from the Ranma of a few days ago, there were certain things based in reality that she could work with, that hadn't changed. And all that she had to do was to be brutally honest... for the most part.
    Ranma looked at her suspiciously. "And what's that?"
    "Well, as surprising as this might sound, I feel sorry for you." Nabiki ignored the derisive snort that came from the person in question. "So, I've decided to give you the chance to become my friend." Before either Ranma or Kasumi could properly absorb or reply to that statement, she added, "But, while I don't charge my friends money, or otherwise take advantage of them, not just anyone can be my friend."
    Ranma regarded her with a queer look on his face, which came with a healthy measure of skepticism. "I don't know what you're after, but it can't be good."
    "You say that as if I'm incapable of being nice," Nabiki playfully observed.
    Ranma cocked an eyebrow. "Am I wrong?"
    "I did help you make up with Akane, when you tried to take me out on a date. You know, back when the engagement had been switched over to me," Nabiki pointed out. "And without charging you a single yen, I might add."
    Ranma crossed his arms and stared at her contemptuously. "Probably because you thought you'd made enough money off of me."
    Nabiki affected a pleasant smile. "So, you realize that I do have reservations, and that I don't always look out for myself. Why not this time, then?"
    "Er..." Came Ranma's eloquent reply.
    Kasumi sighed and shook her head. "Nabiki, I'd like to believe that you came here for a good reason, but even I doubt your sincerity."
    Nabiki shrugged her shoulders. "I'm not surprised. That just means that I have to do what I had expected would be necessary." She ignored Ranma's and Kasumi's questioning looks as she pushed away from the doorjamb and gazed pointedly at the former. "Ranma, not just anyone can say that they're a friend to a princess, much less a sailor senshi. Now, while I've always profited off of you in the past, I'm willing to make an honest trade with you: I become a friend to a princess, and possibly a sailor senshi; you gain a new friend, which you have so few of."
    Seeing the look on Ranma's face, that bespoke of a rising argument, Nabiki coolly interjected. "Don't even try to deny it. Even I don't think that you're that dense."
    When Kasumi saw how dispirited Ranma had become, who now had his head bowed and his face cast in shadow, she turned to her sister and asked, "What do you mean?"
    "Exactly what I said," Nabiki replied, as she turned her attention to her sister. "Nobody at school respects him, or cares about him. Well, they care when one of the sports clubs needs his help, or when the principal gets one of his bright ideas, but that's about it. The guys are mostly interested in seeing his female body, and the girls could care less about him after some of the stunts that he's pulled."
    Worriedly, Kasumi glanced over at Ranma, who still looked out of it, before returning her attention to her sister. "But... what about those two boys that I've seen him with? Aren't they his friends?"
    Nabiki crossed her arms and snorted. "I doubt it. They may have been, at first, but I think they're more interested in being around a girl who doesn't have any feminine modesty. If I remember correctly, they showed a lot of interest with female Ranma before they found out about his curse, and they still buy pictures of her from me."
    "Either way, we're getting a bit off track," she continued, before she walked over to Ranma and stood in front of him. "When I asked you who you were, you said that you didn't know. Has that changed?"
    Ranma raised his head, tried and failed to read Nabiki's face, then shook it.
    "Then allow me to make a suggestion," Nabiki said, with an air of solemnity. "Without respect, you can't expect to make many friends; especially with me. You don't have respect among your peers, who think you're an arrogant jerk and a pervert. They, nor I, want to be friends with someone who tries to sneak into the girls' locker room instead of explaining themselves and asking for permission, and going so far as to oppose them instead of simply waiting for the girls to leave. I even heard that you had included Happosai in one of your plans. And, in the end, all that you accomplished was a ruined locker room and making all of the girls upset with you."
    Ranma looked away, ashamed.
    "Haven't you ever wondered why the only girls that are interested in you were either obligated, starved for love and attention, weird, and often a combination thereof?" Nabiki went on. "Because the average girl has enough common sense to pass up an idiot."
    "Nabiki..." Kasumi warned with a glare.
    "It's okay, Kasumi," Ranma spoke up, who sounded tired. He returned his gaze to the person who was reminding him of how much of an idiot he could be. "I got the point. So, where are you going with this?"
    Nabiki's expression softened a bit. "I've noticed a marked improvement in your behavior since the other day, even though I'm sure that you were trying to act like your usual self a few times. So, I suggest being more like this princess that you once were. Just think about it for a moment: not only could you become my friend, and never have to worry about me taking advantage of you like I usually do ever again, but others might be willing to forget how you've been in the past and become your friend, too."
    Ranma looked down at the floor and thought about it. It sure sounded like he had a lot to benefit from Nabiki's offer, even if he wasn't sure how she would capitalize on it; and he was sure that she would. However, even if he wanted to accept it, changing his normal behavior to be more like Hestia's — that is, more than it was already — would likely draw unwanted attention from his mother, who might find it unmanly. It would also push his luck in regard to keeping his awakening a secret from the other girls. But, when he got right down to it, it was just too tempting an offer to refuse outright. After all, with his new perspective on things, he could only count Kasumi as being a friend... which may not have been the case if Kasumi hadn't awakened her memories of being Hippolyta.
    "Well?" Nabiki prompted. "Will you at least think about it?"
    Ranma released a sigh and looked back up at Nabiki. "Alright. I'll think about it."
    "Good," Nabiki replied, both looking and sounding satisfied. Then she made a big production out of being tired before she said, "Well, I think I've stayed up long enough. Good night."
    Ranma and Kasumi watched her go, unaware of the victorious smile that was on her face. They continued to stand where they were in silence after her departure, he lost in thought and she glancing at him with concern. When he noticed her attention, he smiled wanly before he turned a somewhat thoughtful yet anguished expression toward the ceiling.
    "She's right, you know," he finally said, in a soft tone. "I've done a lot of stupid things. And even if I could continue to act that way, to keep up appearances, I can't stand the thought of being like that anymore. It's just so..."
    Kasumi gave him a sympathetic look, but didn't approach him to give him comfort even though she wanted to. She just couldn't find it in herself to give Ranma the same physical attention that she would have been able to offer to him had he been a girl. "Ranma..."
    Ranma shook his head before he lowered it with a sigh. "I want to change, but I can't change too much or too fast unless I want to find out if it's more trouble than it's worth. Why does it always seem like I have no choice but to act as others expect me to?"
    Much to Kasumi's surprise, she found herself asking, "What's stopping you from being yourself?"
    Ranma turned to answer her, with an expression on his face that said how obvious the answer would be, when his thoughts were derailed by the surprised and confused look that was on her face. "Kasumi?"
    "Sorry," Kasumi replied, as she shook her head. "I don't know why I asked that. Though, now that I think about it..."
    Ranma sighed, but couldn't help chuckling afterward. "People have a lot of reasons for why they don't express what they really feel... Me? I just want less things to worry about, and more peace and quiet. That isn't so bad a compromise, is it?"
    "I suppose not..." Came Kasumi's reply, with a hint of uncertainty in her voice. She wondered if it could really be considered a compromise, rather than a sacrifice.
    Ranma nodded his head in response to her answer, as he tried to convince himself of what he had said. Then he remembered why he had been practicing in the dojo in the first place, and returned to doing just that so he could put any and all questions out of his mind. Kasumi joined him soon after, and they spent another hour practicing their forms before they decided to turn in for the night.

Chapter 10

    The next few days passed by uneventfully, at least as far as Akane was concerned. Not only hadn't she gotten into a fight with one of the other candidates, but there hadn't been any martial arts challenges, aspiring kidnappers, the slighted vengeful, new love interests or fiancées, or a certain practitioner of kendo who shall not be named for fear that it would summon him from his respite at Tofu's clinic. All and all, things had been rather quiet.
    Perhaps a little too quiet.
    It may have been due to that — the lack of distractions, as it were — that she had been able to recognize Ranma's recent change in behavior as being suspicious. She may not have normally thought too much of it several weeks ago, but it was difficult to not consider the possible implications when in recent weeks she had not been the only one to experience such changes.
    Granted, it was a nice change for Ranma, and she had really enjoyed her second outing with him yesterday, but if Hestia were involved then it could ruin everything. Even now she was rankled by thoughts of the past, due to a girl who appeared to have everything handed to her on a silver platter yet had seemingly spited her peers by showing no interest toward any of it, as if they had been beneath her. Not only had Hestia been in a favorable position with the Golden Kingdom's royalty because her mother had come from one of its highly-esteemed noble families, but she had secured an engagement to said kingdom's prince in addition to being an eligible candidate among those who could become the Earth's sailor senshi. The absolute last thing that she wanted was for Ranma to be pulling out Hestia's "I'm all nice and innocent" act, as if nothing of consequence were happening, only to rub it in her face should he become the Earth's sailor senshi without her ever having known him as being a candidate (until the very last second, at least).
    She glanced over at Ranma, who appeared to be minding his own business as they made their way to school. She peered at him closely, as if to pierce through some form of deception (should it happen to exist), but nothing apparent came to light. Unfortunately, all her effort seemed to accomplish was the attraction of her target's unwanted attention.
    Ranma regarded her with a mildly bemused expression. "What?"
    "N-nothing!" Akane lied, as she looked away and sought frantically for a decent excuse for what she had been caught doing. "I was..." She brightened when an idea occurred to her, so she looked back and said, "I was just wondering why you weren't walking on the fence, that's all."
    Ranma looked at her oddly for a moment, but — to her relief — he turned away, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, I got to thinking, and it didn't feel right doing it while walking with a friend, y'know?"
    "I suppose..." Akane half-heartedly agreed, her mind more focused on her excuse being bought than the reason that Ranma had given her in response to said excuse.
    The rest of the way to their destination was spent in silence. On occasion they glanced at the other surreptitiously, trying to figure out what the other was thinking, and wondering whether or not they had anything to worry about. Only one of the two were aware of the other's secretive activity, and Ranma was beginning to think that — by trying to befriend Akane — he had made an error in judgement.
    When they reached the school gate, they were disappointed when they saw Kuno running toward them. Akane — in particular — was less than pleased to see him heading in her direction, in specific.
    When he drew near, he spread his arms out wide — as if to receive someone in an embrace — and declared, "Ah, my fierce tigress! I wish to—"
    He found himself silenced when Akane's fist struck one side of his face while — at the same time — Ranma's foot landed a blow on the other side.
    After taking a step back and recovering from being repulsed, he regarded Ranma with a look of confusion and asked, "What was that for?"
    Ranma simply looked at him as if the answer should have been obvious.
    Akane released a sigh, figuring that she should get their encounter with Kuno over and done with. "What do you want, Kuno?"
    "Ah, that's right!" Kuno exclaimed in realization, as if he had suddenly remembered something that he had forgotten only seconds ago. Then his countenance swiftly became solemn. "As much as I'd rather have another excuse for speaking with you, I came to see you so that I might ask you a question of the utmost importance."
    "Could have fooled me," Ranma and Akane thought to themselves, before the latter patiently asked, "Ask me what?"
    "Where might I find my pigtailed angel?" Kuno implored.
    "'Pigtailed angel?'" Akane wondered to herself, who failed to notice how Ranma's body had stiffened while she considered the new form of address. Wanting an answer for it, she looked at Kuno inquisitively and replied with a question of her own. "Why do you want to see her?"
    With a look of concern on his face, Kuno said, "Now, don't be jealous—"
    "Who's jealous!?" Akane retorted.
    "But," Kuno continued, as if he hadn't been interrupted, "it is to my understanding that my life had been saved the other day. My only wish is to impart my gratitude to the one responsible." His eyes suddenly lost focus. "Ah, to think that — in a life or death struggle — one of my beloveds had been able to escape Saotome's control and show the world the true power of our love..."
    While Ranma looked disgusted at whatever imagery had come to mind, Akane regarded Kuno with a half-lidded stare and sarcastically said, "Yes, I'm sure that carrying you to a doctor is the greatest expression of love that anyone could have given."
    "Nay!" Kuno strongly disagreed, both loudly and suddenly, which made some nearby heads turn to investigate what was going on (if they hadn't been watching already). "Not only did the pigtailed angel deliver me to a place of refuge, but she had also—"
    He was suddenly soaring into the distance, courtesy of Ranma's foot. The owner of said foot had been afraid of being implicated as the healer instead of doctor Tofu, and hadn't had much time to think of a better solution. And as his mind began to catch up with what he had just done in a blind panic, he quickly composed himself and prepared himself for some damage control.
    "What was that for?" Akane questioned him sharply, a bit of confusion showing on her face. While she didn't particularly care for Kuno's presence, his ejection by Ranma had been both unexpected and seemingly unprovoked.
    Ranma did his best to act cool as he turned his back on her, so he was now facing the school. "As if I'm going to stand here and risk being late to class by listening to him drone on and on — about every little detail — until it sounds like I'd done everything myself, instead of giving credit where credit is due."
    He managed to contain a grin of satisfaction, since he was rather proud of his wording despite having been put on the spot. Then he began to walk toward the school, as if the matter had been closed.
    Akane followed after him, but the matter had not been closed with her — not completely. While she respected doctor Tofu (and thus understood why he should receive the credit due to him), the same couldn't be said for Ranma. Her trust in him was rather limited, and what he had done to Kuno — despite his reasoning — began to gnaw at her, making her suspicion from earlier come back with a vengeance.
    She had to be sure that he wasn't hiding anything.

    Akane hadn't been able to wait until the end of the school day to see Kuno, so she had decided to see him at the earliest and most convenient opportunity: during lunch break. Kuno had decided the same thing for a different reason, which was fortunate for her because they were able to meet in the hallway, away from Nabiki. The last thing that she wanted to do was to go through the trouble of fabricating a believable reason for why she would want to see Kuno, seeing as how her sister might otherwise decide to start a spurious rumor despite her experience with being cursed. In order to prevent others from doing the same thing, she had instructed Kuno to meet her clandestinely after they had gone their separate ways, so that prying eyes wouldn't see them together beyond their initial meeting.
    Their meeting place was behind the gymnasium's storage shed. Much to Akane's annoyance, Kuno had gotten the wrong idea regarding the motive behind their secret rendezvous, and she had to punch him in the face in order to ward off an unwelcome embrace.
    "Look," Akane huffed impatiently, "I just wanted to ask you a question."
    "Ah," Kuno voiced, as if he had just learned some profound truth. He tucked his hands into his sleeves and said, "I will try not to disappoint you with my answer, then."
    "I hope so, too," Akane thought to herself, before she collected her thoughts and said, "I was wondering what you were going to say earlier this morning, before you had been so rudely interrupted."
    "Indeed!" Kuno exclaimed, as he raised a shaking fist in righteous fury. "What manner of man not only interrupts another while speaking, but strikes without first announcing oneself? Saotome's impoliteness surely knows no bounds!"
    Akane regarded him with a half-lidded stare as she made an effort to remain patient. "So? What were you going to say before that?"
    Kuno coughed into his fist and composed himself before answering. "I do believe that I had assured you of there being no need for jealousy."
    "After that," Akane ground out, her patience waning.
    Kuno crossed his arms and tilted his head to the side in thought. A moment later he righted his head and pounded the fist of one hand into the palm of the other in realization. "Oh! You must mean my account of the pigtailed angel's show of love, a love so deep that Saotome's hold over her couldn't prevent her from acting upon her feelings for me."
    Akane didn't trust herself enough to speak, so she simply nodded her head.
    Kuno developed a faraway look in his eyes as he recalled his experience, unaware that his state of mind at the time — in addition to his rampant romanticism — had distorted what he had actually seen. "Yes... After she delivered me to a safe haven, she revealed her wings of light to me and carried me off to Heaven."
    Akane's brow furrowed as she considered the possibility of his account being a delusion. However, she decided that she could spare some time getting him to elaborate — just in case. "What do you mean?"
    After he blinked his eyes and returned to the present, Kuno took a moment to consider how to describe what he had seen. "The wings were not made of feather and flesh, as one might assume. Nor had they emerged from her back. Rather, they came into being from her hands, as if drawn."
    "As if... drawn?" Akane inquired quietly, which sounded hollow to her ears as the blood in her face began to be drawn away from its surface.
    Kuno nodded his head in confirmation before continuing, her reaction to his words going unnoticed. "And then I found myself entering a cloud, where I found blessed relief. What other explanation can there be for this, if not that the pigtailed girl is indeed an angel who carried me off to Heaven in order to administer a divine remedy?"
    "Yeah," Akane muttered distractedly, her mind somewhere else, "what else could it be..."
    Misinterpreting her response as one given by someone in low spirits, Kuno extended an arm across Akane's shoulders and pulled her to his side. "Do not feel inadequate, fair Akane! You may not be an angel in fact, but what does it matter when you are one in all the ways that matter? It is thus that my love for you wanes not!"
    Having been angered by her personal space and person being violated while she had been distracted, Akane spared nothing behind the uppercut that sent Kuno flying into the distance. She had even added a bit of wind magic to it, in order to propel him even farther away than usual.
    After she had calmed down, she bit down on her bottom lip and became absorbed in her thoughts once more. It had bothered her to hear that the "wings of light" had been drawn by hand, which had been a method used by Hestia to perform intricate spellwork. It all but guaranteed that Hestia had been awakened in Ranma. There was really only one way to know for sure at that point, though it probably wouldn't hurt to ask doctor Tofu about it first...

    It was early in the evening when Ranma's mother informed him that Akane was waiting for him in the dojo, though his fiancée hadn't told his mother the reason for why. As he made his way there, he wondered if it had anything to do with her behavior in school. She had tried to hide it, but she had obviously been distracted by something. He only hoped that it hadn't been caused by anything related to a certain incident.
    It was with a glimmer of optimism that he stepped into the dojo and approached Akane, whose back was turned toward him. "You wanted to see me?"
    "Not you," Akane replied in a controlled tone, which had confused Ranma long enough to leave him unprepared for when Akane whirled around and launched a bucket's worth of water into his — now her — face with a spell. "You're the one I wanted to see... Hestia."
    Ranma calmly stared back at Akane's glaring eyes and angry visage, feigning a look of confusion. "What in the world are you talking—"
    "Don't play dumb with me!" Akane hissed, as wisps of fire began to swirl around her fists. "Kuno was more than willing to share the rest of his story, about how his so-called 'pigtailed angel' saved him. And while doctor Tofu would only say that you had been helpful, he's not exactly perfect at hiding the effect of his thoughts." With a pointed look, she added, "Just like someone I used to know."
    Silence followed her words, and for a moment they did nothing more than stare at each other. Finally, Ranma came to a mental decision and — as a result — sighed in resignation. It was a shame that her secret had only lasted five days, but she really hadn't expected it to last very long anyway, despite hoping against her secret ever coming to light at all.
    "Fine, you got me," she admitted, as she crossed her arms and cocked an eyebrow. "So what?"
    "'So what?'" Akane echoed, her voice rising. "'So what!?' You know what!"
    Ranma grinned cheekily. "Nope, sorry. It's been so long that I can scarcely remember whatever it is you're referring to."
    She tilted her head to the right a split-second before a small fireball passed over her left shoulder, which she snuffed out with a gust of wind — that she had summoned and directed with a hand gesture — before it could hit anything behind her and catch fire.
    Her expression hardened as she moved her head back to its natural position and lowered her now-uncrossed arms to her sides. "Speaking of people I used to know, what's it going to be this time? Whose life are you going to hold over my head in order to get what you want?"
    Akane looked equal parts insulted and disgusted. "I'm not like Juno. How could you even think that?"
    "Oh, I dunno," came Ranma's sarcastic reply. "Maybe it's because you're treating me as if I'm no different from being Hestia?"
    Akane crossed her arms imperiously and retorted, "Well, you're not."
    Ranma rolled her eyes. "Right. I've always wanted to be female, a princess and a sailor senshi. Guilty as charged."
    "You can't fool me," Akane replied, her eyes narrowed. "Hestia had always been sneaky, and what do I find out? You're doing the same thing: pretending that you haven't changed!"
    "Gee, I wonder why?" Ranma remarked.
    "Not only that," Akane continued, undeterred, "but you've had the opportunity to get rid of your curse and you haven't. I know you can do it, so what other reason could you have — to not do it — unless you were trying to do the whole 'I'm not really interested' act that Hestia had done?"
    Ranma's body had gone stiff in light of the sensitive subject that had been touched upon, so she proceeded to bring her mental defenses to bear with a scowl and a look in her eyes that were meant to warn Akane of the dangers that would lie ahead should she proceed any further. Then, in a very clear, level and deliberate tone, she said, "Your assumptions aside, my reasons are personal, and none of your business."
    It was more the look than the words that had given Akane cause to pause, but she continued on nonetheless (though more delicately since she had gotten the overall message). "And I'm supposed to believe you? Just like that?"
    Ranma closed her eyes and released a sigh that carried off the tension in her body, leaving behind a sort of hollow feeling in its place. Then she looked Akane right in the eye and countered with, "Look, why don't you just tell me what I would need to do in order to convince you that I'm not interested in becoming a sailor senshi."
    She already knew what the answer to that would likely be, which was the reason for why she had that hollow feeling inside. She tried to convince herself that it was what she wanted, regardless of what others wanted or expected, but she didn't have the heart to form the idea into words.
    The hollow feeling also came from the fact that yet another decision was going to be made for her. Sure, she had a choice, but if she refused what Akane wanted: not only would she have to deal with the four "princesses," but in (most of) their minds it would put into question her masculinity. That would likely have unwanted repercussions that would reach beyond them, likely resulting in having to deal with her mother at the very least.
    Would her capitulation be worth it? She really didn't know. All that she knew was that she was getting tired of it all, and it appeared to be the best way to find some peace (even if not happiness).
    After the second it took to consider her response, Akane faked a friendly smile — much to Ranma's annoyance — and said, "Well, as you should know, only females can become sailor senshi. So, it stands to reason that I shouldn't have anything to worry about if you're not female, right?"
    Even though Ranma had expected it, and had already formed her decision, she still found it hard to accept and go along with it. It took her a moment to respond, which had given her enough time to recall a matter that she had almost forgotten among all of the other things that had been on her mind.
    "Under one condition," she petitioned.
    Akane regarded her with a mix of curiosity, confusion and impatience. "And what would that be?"
    "I recently changed someone's appearance with magic," Ranma informed her, "so that they can experience it and see if they like the changes or not." Seeing the coming question, she intercepted it by saying, "It's a private matter, so don't ask," before she picked up from where she had left off. "I'll need two objects with simple, catalytic enchantments on them: one to unravel the magic, and another to set it as their natural form."
    "Catalytic, huh?" Akane muttered, who frowned as she thought about Ranma's condition, and who she might have changed.
    Ranma smirked when she saw an opportunity to goad her. "You do know how to make a catalyst, right?"
    "Of course I do!" Akane vehemently declared, looking scandalized.
    "Fine," she grumbled a few seconds later, after she had recovered from her outburst, "I accept your condition."
    Ranma simply nodded her head before getting to work. Jusenkyo curses had been meant for the purpose of training, not punishment, so they were easy enough to dispel if one knew how. As a result it had taken her no time at all to create a magical array to do just that, since it was small in size and simple in detail.
    It was with some reluctance that she announced, "It's ready. You'll have to be the one to power it, though, since I'll lose my magic in the process."
    Akane didn't even spare a gesture or word of acknowledgement as she reached her hand out and placed it in the middle of the magical array, which glowed brighter when she fed it her magic. She watched as it went to work, as Ranma's female body began to transition back into the one that he had been born with. The process only took a handful of seconds to complete.
    She allowed a self-satisfied smile to grace her lips as she looked Ranma over, knowing that he was no longer prettier than her (not that she would ever admit it), no longer had access to magic, probably couldn't best her in a fight because she did have magic, couldn't lay any claim to once being royalty, and — above all else — wasn't qualified to become a sailor senshi.
    "Well," she said perkily, "that certainly takes a load off my mind." She looked up into Ranma's stony visage, but she was too wrapped up in her own feelings of joy to notice that he wasn't feeling the same way. "Hestia's upbringing has probably toned down your shamelessness a bit, so I'll give you some privacy so you can celebrate being cured. Have fun!"
    Ranma remained still while Akane navigated her way around him and left the dojo, her parting words still fresh in his mind. Before last Sunday she would have been right: getting cured would have been headline news, and he would have been so happy that he would have acted rather silly in expressing said happiness. But things had changed, lengthening and broadening his perspective in their wake, and being without the curse felt more like an announcement belonging to an obituary than a front page.

Chapter 11

    The light of the evening sun glistened upon the bare skin of Ranma's torso as he punched the rope-bound post over and over again. His focus never wavered even as beads of sweat ran down from his brow and into his eyes.
    It had been a month since he had been cured of his curse. He had spent each day regretting it, some days more than others: not so much due to any particular inclination toward wanting to be female, but of having lost the choice and the opportunities that had been available; some of which he had explored and enjoyed. His past life as Hestia had little to do with it, though it had certainly extended his comfort level in regard to several female-related subjects.
    He could live without getting extra helpings and free food from enamored guys, but there was something to be said about no longer having an outlet for when he didn't feel like owning up to whatever others perceived to be manly. It didn't help that it had been an image that he had projected himself, since other guys could get away with crying without it being a big deal (unlike the time when Mousse had repeatedly made him cry and prostrate himself in front of his peers using a magic pair of glasses).
    What really irritated him was how the girls who supposedly loved him were free to do whatever they wanted, and were at that very moment about to see which one of them would attain their dream of becoming a sailor senshi.
    He paused when he next struck the post, leaving his arm extended and his fist pressed against the rope. He thought about his mother, and the reason for why he had to be manly even if he had been inclined to change his character and act differently. The problem was that he didn't know what his mother's definition of manliness was, aside from a few aspects that most would consider normal or common. And what he didn't know made him wonder.
    His mother had married his father, after all. Even if their marriage had been arranged, he'd seen his father doing things that he considered to be unmanly — or, at the very least, unlawful and immoral — in his mother's presence, or to her herself, without ever being called on it. How could she allow his father to do those things yet still expect him to act responsible, like a man should?
    As he lowered his arm and stood up straight, he thought back on the few good things that had happened in the past month. For one, he could still hear his father griping every now and again about him getting a cure while he himself remained cursed. Fortunately, his mother didn't hold it against him for not finding a way to get his father cured as well, though he'd come to expect her aloofness toward his father. Of course, saying that the Jusenkyo curse had gone away on its own because he had earned it might have helped.
    Another good thing was that each of the four so-called princesses had been wrapped up with the sailor senshi whenever it had been their turn to spend time with them for a week, so they hadn't paid him much attention during that time. It was also nice that they hadn't bothered him much during the other three weeks of the month, which he attributed to feelings of anxiety as they awaited the moment of truth, wondering whether their efforts had paid off or not.
    He looked toward the breezeway that connected the house to the dojo with a wistful expression on his face, wanting to see Kasumi coming to visit him but knowing how unlikely that was to be. Now that they were strictly a man and woman, interacting with each other had become rather awkward: because they didn't want to go through the trouble that would follow either Akane or their parents getting the wrong idea about them acting too familiar with each other. That, and the difference in sex was hard for them to ignore because they weren't interested in a relationship that went beyond platonic, since their friendship had taken root between two girls.
    Sighing, he turned away and walked over to the side of the dojo, where a water spigot came out of the ground via a concrete post. He retrieved the towel that he had left on top of it and began to wipe away the sweat from his face. Once he was finished, he folded it up length-wise and hung it from his neck.
    Noticing the hose rolled up at the base of the spigot, he stared down at it with a longing look in his eyes and thought, "Damn it. I could really go for some ice cream right about now..."
    "Why not get some, then?" He asked himself.
    He gave the mental equivalent of a snort at that. "Why else? I've got a tough and manly image to uphold."
    "That's a poor excuse and you know it," came the argument. "Besides, how often has that stopped you from doing something humiliating before?"
    "That's different," he tried to reason with himself. "I was usually acting stupid at those times. And it's different when people see a girl eating ice cream."
    He sensed a mental eyebrow being raised in response to that. "Oh, really? So you're saying that one's function follows form, and somehow there's something about a girl's appearance that signifies their ability to eat ice cream without being persecuted for it?"
    That wasn't exactly how he had put it, but he got the general idea and felt equal parts stupid and ashamed. He knew better, even before he had remembered his life as Hestia, but the excuses made his sacrifices the result of being forced by outside sources rather than ones that came from within, which he didn't want to admit to. He could very well eat ice cream whether anyone else cared about it or not, but he cared, and he preferred making choices that would benefit him the most... Not that he'd felt particularly happy with a lot of his choices as of late.
    "You're an idiot/I'm an idiot," he told himself, releasing a sigh.
    Then he paused, realizing that he had just expressed two separate thoughts at the same time. Well, both thoughts had meant the same thing, only from a different perspective. That had never happened to him before. Was it even possible? And once he thought about it, the side of the conversation that had spoken in the second-person — while sounding just like him in his head — hadn't felt exactly the same as the thoughts that he was sure he had willed into being himself.
    "You're an idiot," the other voice repeated, "but you're my idiot."

    Elysium, where the Golden Kingdom had once flourished many a millennia ago, was a sight to behold; even to those who had seen it before. Aside from the ruins that bespoke of the aforementioned civilization, it was a place full of natural wonders that was very paradisiacal to the eye.
    Four self-identified princesses of Earth, who were wearing their princess garb, looked about themselves — half in remembrance and half in awe — as they followed a Neo-Queen-dressed Usagi, an Endymion-clad Mamoru, and the four guardian sailor senshi to their destination. They did their best to hide their insecurities with self-assurances and self-imposed feelings of confidence, knowing that only one of them would be a sailor senshi after Gaea's judgement ended the rite of succession.
    It wasn't long before they arrived at a beautiful lake, one whose pristine and tranquil surface captured the surrounding environment perfectly and reflected it back undisturbed by either wave or ripple. At its bank a fancy-looking ferry awaited them, and near its stern stood Helios, the priest of the large shrine that dominated the center of the lake. He greeted them all with a smile as they approached, in his hands the single oar that would propel and steer the ferry's passengers to where they would need to go.
    They boarded the ferry without exchanging any words with anyone. While they could have just flown over to the shrine in the middle of the lake, as with many ceremonies they would need to proceed at a pace that was dictated by whatever impractical, inconvenient or unconventional means had been set as a requirement for it. Fortunately, in this case, the ferry was really the only such thing that the current part of the ceremony could have done without; at least in the opinion of several of those present.
    As Helios began to row the ferry toward the shrine, some took the time (since they had plenty of it) to think about this or that, while others tried to not think of anything, fearing that — in doing so — it would undermine the frame of mind that they had put themselves in for what lie ahead of them. The four guardian sailor senshi — in particular — were keen to do nothing that would reveal anything regarding their thoughts or feelings on the matter, being that said thoughts and feelings would have an impact on Gaea's judgement.
    It wasn't long before Usagi caught Mamoru's gaze and communicated silently with him about her concerns, since he was the only one who knew what she had learned from her mother-turned-sailor power guardian. She couldn't help wondering exactly what Gaea would do, or how it might affect the four former princesses; and while she found some reassurance from the emotional rapport shown in her beloved's eyes, it hadn't been enough to completely allay her worry. In some ways she felt that what was about to happen was wrong, even though she understood the reason for why it was going to be done. Even if she hadn't heard of what the four candidates had been like from Phoebe prior to spending a week with each of them, she had been able to tell — to some degree or another — that they hadn't been honest with her; that they had — in fact — been putting on a show for their own benefit. And how could she place her faith in any person who only existed as another's mask?
    Behind her, Ukyo couldn't help wondering about Konatsu, despite the significance of where she was and what was happening. By the time her week with the sailor senshi had come to an end (at the expense of closing her restaurant during that time, since she couldn't trust anyone else to run it without them running it into the ground), the male kunoichi had simply vanished. She'd seen neither hide nor hair of him since, and at first she had been worried because he hadn't left a note telling her anything of importance. But he hadn't been anything more to her than cheap help at her restaurant, good for little more than waitressing and cleaning (because he was a screw up at everything else), so it hadn't taken long for the concern to vanish. That didn't stop his absence from being a mystery, but she figured that he could take care of himself regardless of the reason for his abrupt disappearance. Still, it was a shame that she couldn't benefit from his unambitious and obsequious devotion anymore.
    While the ancient shrine grew bigger as the ferry drew nearer, Akane found it easy enough to feel both confident and smug. Not only did she feel like she had the best chance for being the most normal girl among them (seeing as the other sailor senshi were essentially normal girls living normal lives), but she had also managed to throw water on Ukyo's and Shampoo's passion for her fiancé. After boasting about having taken care of Hestia, by having been the one to cure Ranma of his curse, she had lied and told them that she was no longer interested in him because he was now more Hestia than the Ranma that they had all fallen in love with. And while she wasn't completely at ease with him being Hestia's reincarnation, it was still a matter of pride that she win him from the others. Besides which, marrying him wouldn't be so bad because he was easy enough to control, and that would allow her to be the one in charge while he took care of most of the responsibilities. If she also happened to become a sailor senshi, he'd be more a servant to royalty than a husband and an equal in status, which would suit her just fine.
    When the ferry was close enough for the immense size of the shrine to loom over it and its passengers, the four sailor senshi candidates were able to take in the masonic structure's details for the first time in either of their incarnations. Both the foundation and the structure at the shrine's center were octagonal in shape, with the entirety of the outermost part of the former having stairs leading inward to the latter. There were eight flying buttresses supporting the central structure from the base of the stairs, each at a corner, which lent to and complemented the pillar-dominated design of the structure's ground level. The second level appeared to be a roof, where a large stairway led to an unknown area (since they couldn't see it from their current vantage point) that was surrounded by two pairs of massive pillars. There were three pillars to a pair, and each of the three pillars shared the same architrave and didn't seem to support anything more beyond that.
    They eventually reached the shrine and disembarked from the ferry. After they ascended the stairs and found themselves beneath the shrine's vaulted ceiling, they were met and greeted by two smiling shrine maidens. The shrine maidens moved with grace, wore slim, white gowns of silk that were long enough to whisper across the floor, and their hair was done up in the same odango hairstyle as Usagi's. With Helios in the lead, he and they soon led their group to the rooftop, this time with the four candidates being followed by Usagi, Mamoru and the four guardian sailor senshi (due to boarding and disembarking from the same side of the ferry).
    The roof was essentially the opposite of the ground level, being open to the sky yet covering everywhere else with walls, colonnades and various foliage. Aside from the large stairway there wasn't much of a view of what was beyond the shrine, which was a bit ironic since the roof had a much better view of the surrounding area than the ground level did. However, it had a more welcoming, atrium-like quality to it, as opposed to being wide-open and ascetic.
    As for the stairway, it began with a pair of stairs leading in opposite directions, before angling back to meet at a common landing. There was only a single stair that went onward from there, whose width more than doubled near the start as it led the way to a large platform surrounded by six equally-large pillars. To those in the know, all of it was referred to as the "tower of prayer," because it was where Helios conducted his prayers as the priest of the shrine.
    While it didn't seem to matter which way they went, Helios and a shrine maiden went one way, leading the four sailor senshi candidates, while the other shrine maiden went the other way, leading the rest of the group. When both groups reunited upon arriving at the landing, the two shrine maidens followed Helios as he broke away from the group and climbed the next set of stairs. When the two shrine maidens stopped and flanked the portion of the stairs where it broadened, Helios continued to make his way to the platform that lie beyond them.
    By the time that Helios had stopped a few steps short of the platform and knelt down before it, the tension had become strong enough to wear down calm exteriors and lower the confidence of even the most self-assured among the four who hoped to become the sailor senshi of the Earth. The moment of truth had finally arrived for them, and they were anxious and hopeful to be the victor, being that they all had certain dreams that they wished to achieve — as well as expectations to enjoy — once they were the Earth's sailor senshi.
    "Gaea," Helios spoke loudly and clearly as he gazed up toward the platform, his voice having a reverberating quality to it, "she who is mother to us all, the time for judgement has arrived. I have guided those who would be judged to this sacred place, the chosen of a bygone era. With them stand the daughter of Selene, the son of Kronos, and the sailor senshi of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter."
    No sooner than he had finished speaking did the air begin to feel charged with energy, and the shrine vibrated with such a frequency that it had a slight numbing effect on the feet of those standing upon it. Then, above the platform, between it and the maximum height of the pillars, something began to manifest itself visually in the air. It was formless, dancing like a fire, if said fire were a haze of mist and smoke that shimmered and rippled like a mirage. Faint colors appeared to highlight it, constantly changing in shape, size and mixing with each other at their boundaries to create new colors.
    When the environment seemed to settle down, everyone present heard Gaea speak in their minds, in each of their own inner voices. "I thank you for your service, Helios. May the four chosen approach me."
    While Helios stood up and walked over to one side of the stairway, so he wouldn't be in the way of the proceedings, four girls ascended the stairway at a sedate pace even as their hearts raced, their heads held high. Like Helios they stopped short of the platform, where they looked up at what represented Gaea's presence. To a few of those present, looking upon Gaea reminded them of a television screen displaying noise: because they could briefly make out patterns even though what was being shown was random. It came as a welcome distraction to those who needed it.
    "This day has been long in coming," Gaea intoned, "a day that I had once feared as an individual who cherishes freedom. But freedom can not always be won alone, and I'm in a poor position to protect myself and what I hold dear. Recent events have made this more clear than ever, and my reluctance to join with another for the rest of our existence has been put to rest."
    This information was new to quite a few of those present, though they were affected by it differently. For the four that the information was most relevant to: while there was some concern about the "joining" part, they were more intrigued by the thought of how long they would live if they became a sailor senshi. For the four that were already sailor senshi: it made them wonder about their sailor power guardians and whether Gaea would become like theirs, who were essentially mirrors of themselves.
    "I am pleased to say," Gaea continued, in a tone of satisfaction, "that the one who will become my sailor senshi has been decided unanimously, not only by the judges present but by myself as well. I will now bind myself to them and assume their appearance henceforth, revealing to all what has been decided."
    Mamoru looked down upon feeling a familiar sensation, and he and those around him watched as the Kinzuishou came out of his chest and floated toward Gaea. The four girls that stood near the platform, whose backs were facing those who were at the landing, had no idea that it had happened until they "heard" Gaea say, "I thank you and your family, Endymion, for keeping this safe. The abilities that have been bestowed upon you — in order to protect it — shall remain, and to show my gratitude you shall be blessed with a long and healthy life."
    When the Kinzuishou reached Gaea, and entered the form that represented her presence, it suddenly disappeared. Replacing it was a pinpoint of light, which began to grow bigger and brighter within seconds, swallowing up the formless shape around it. By that time all of Elysium had begun to go crazy, with colors and shapes changing and distorting without rhyme or reason, as if something were interfering with its connection to reality. This was due to the fact that Elysium only existed because of Gaea's will, and at the moment she was going through a process that limited her attention to anything else.
    Despite most present feeling varying degrees of disconcertment and distress, there wasn't an outright panic because nothing was happening to them beyond having to keep their balance, since the shrine itself did nothing more than tremble and shake. When the world around them calmed down and started to make sense again, it came as a great source of relief; although it also helped that their attention had been drawn back to the ball of light, which had begun to change its shape.
    Everyone watched as the ball of light changed from a sphere into something else, though only the group at the landing were at a vantage point to discern exactly what it was, as only they could make out the head and limbs that were connected to a torso. To the four girls standing almost directly underneath it, the sphere of light had taken on a very lumpy and rectangular shape, one that had two pronounced protrusions at the bottom.
    Then the human-shaped figure of light released a blinding flash, which made everyone shut their eyes and/or cover their faces. When they were able to see again, and saw the nude form of the person that Gaea had bound herself to, there were three distinct reactions. The first came from Usagi, Mamoru and Helios, who had expected Gaea's choice and were concerned about how it would effect the four girls near the platform. The second came from the four guardian sailor senshi, who were surprised but otherwise delighted by the outcome, as their reluctant choices had been ignored for the one that they wanted to — but couldn't — make. The third came from the now-defunct candidates, who stared at Gaea in shocked horror, even as outrage began to build up within them.
    Gaea drifted downward, closer to the platform, and smirked at the reactions that she had received from the four girls below her. When she spoke, rather than her voice matching the person hearing it, everyone heard Ranma's female voice instead. "It is done. Now and forever shall Ranma be Sailor Gaea."
    Ukyo was the first to recover and express her outrage. "But that... That's not fair! How could you choose her when she wasn't even a candidate!?"
    Gaea looked down upon her as if she were a bug before crossing her arms and snorting contemptuously. "Fair? Who said anything about life being fair? The only reason why I didn't choose just anyone in the first place was out of consideration for the circumstances at the time. You had your chance and you blew it, not once but twice. Forcing someone out of the candidacy in one life, and then trying to ensure that she couldn't become a candidate in another, wasn't going to change anything."
    "You've been tricked!" Akane exclaimed, her body shaking with emotion in light of the scenario that she had dreaded becoming a reality having done just that. She found herself putting into words the things that she tended to feel about Ranma and Hestia. "She might seem nice and innocent on the outside, but she's devious and rotten on the inside! She's a pervert, can't be trusted, and she thinks she's better than everyone else! Who knows what she'll do now that she has your power!"
    As the girls around her nodded their heads in agreement (with Shampoo and Ukyo joining Kodachi due to Akane's lies, since neither of them had liked Hestia), Gaea stared at them pityingly. "The only ones who have been tricked are yourselves, by yourselves. I know every thought and memory of all creatures born on this planet, and I do not like the desires that have driven all of you to want what I had to offer."
    "Unlike you," Gaea continued, with a frown, "the one I've chosen doesn't want to become the queen of the world, play the hero by correcting what is believed to be wrong — wherever it might be found — until it's made right, making a remote village the center of the world and spreading its ways as the correct and ideal way to live, or using one's status as a sailor senshi to become popular and idolized because of their insecurities."
    Ukyo had the good grace to look embarrassed, while the others either found nothing wrong with their desires or were too proud to show that they were. In the end, however, they had lost and that hadn't put them in the mood to listen to anyone's criticism; even from Gaea, especially since she looked like the person that they had lost to. Shampoo and Kodachi were already rationalizing how Gaea was wrong, how they were faultless, and why their loss was a mistake that would work itself out given enough time, once she realized the truth as they saw it. As for Akane, she had her head bowed and her hands clenched into fists at her sides as she tried to stop herself from making an outburst, because she didn't like it when someone told her that she was insecure about something, much less when it was said in front of others.
    Knowing what was going through their minds, Gaea could only shake her head in mild disbelief. "My words do not reach you. No matter; perhaps in time you'll realize what you've done for it to come to this. Why, it has even cost you the man you all supposedly love."
    Pointing out that they had lost their second-highest desire elicited a heart-stricken response, as the combined loss began to take its toll. Only Kodachi hadn't responded that way, who had become confused instead.
    Seeing this, Gaea turned her attention to her with a grin and said, "Yes, Ranma and the girl you now know as Hestia are one and the same. You've never seen them together, know that they have gone by the same name, wear the same clothes and hairstyle, appear related, and you've even seen him become her before your very eyes."
    "No!" Kodachi screamed, as she closed her eyes and shook her head in denial. "You lie! It can't be!"
    And it couldn't be. If she were led to believe it, then that would mean that all of her efforts would have been sabotaged by none other than herself. Not only that, but that she could have potentially had the opposite effect on him while the confidence that she had in her seduction techniques made her blind to that possibility. After all, how could she have failed?
    Even though she feared what she might learn, she turned to regard the others who were after her beloved's heart. When she saw them turn their heads away, as if to play innocent, she felt the world fall out from under her feet, and she found herself on her knees before she was even aware of it, with her legs folding underneath her in short order. Now she knew that Gaea had been telling her the truth: because it made so much sense for her rivals to know and not say anything to her about it, knowing that it would ruin any chance that she would have had at winning her beloved from them. She couldn't help covering her face with her hands as she tried to quell the tears that stung her eyes, her grief not helped by the shame brought on by having such a revelation before the ones who had used her ignorance against her.
    Before Gaea could attempt to achieve the same kind of result with at least one of the other girls standing before her, she had to pause when she noticed how upset Selene's daughter had become. While she couldn't read the girl's mind, the glare that she directed her way said more than enough. She took a moment to consider what she should do next, and it was with no small amount of reluctance that she decided to leave things be, even as she cursed how much Usagi had turned out to be like her mother.
    She released a sigh of disappointment and said, "I suppose that's all that needs to be said. Time to send home the losers, I guess."
    The four princess-garbed girls couldn't even begin to mount a protest — even those who had been in a condition and inclination to do so — by the time they found themselves being whisked away within pillars of light, courtesy of an absently-given hand gesture made by Gaea.
    "That was horrible!" Usagi decried. "How could you do that!?"
    Now that there was no one present that she needed to act wise and superior around or toward, Gaea huffed petulantly and turned her body away to the side with her arms crossed. "I was just stating the facts. What does it matter if they realize it now or later? The sooner the better, if you ask me."
    "That's different," Usagi argued, her expression hardening. "What good does it do you to hurt other people in such a way?"
    Gaea regarded Usagi with a sidelong glance before looking away again, her cheeks beginning to flush. She proceeded to pout and fidget with her hands by pressing her index fingers together. In a soft voice she reluctantly admitted, "I was... you know... kind of hoping that it would be good for Ranma, not me."
    That brought Usagi up short, while Mamoru and the four guardian sailor senshi marveled at Gaea's change in behavior. Just a moment ago she had seemed so large and in charge, and now she was acting like a demure school girl who had a crush. Could it be that...
    Before that kind of thought could be finished by anyone who happened to be thinking in that direction, Gaea turned to face them, waved her hands as if to ward off something, and frantically said, "N-not that I like her, or anything! It's just..." She paused to think of an excuse, and she snapped her fingers upon doing so. "I feel sorry for her! Yeah! And if I make her feel better, it will improve her job performance! That's what it all really comes down to! Job performance!"
    She only needed to see the knowing grins, half-lidded stares and cocked eyebrows to know that they weren't buying it, which made her squeal in embarrassment. "I don't have to float here and take this! I have a new sailor senshi to break in!"
    And, just like that, she was gone; but not before making a comical-sounding harrumph. Those responsible for her abrupt leave-taking exchanged looks with each other, figuring that Ranma would be in good hands.
    "I hope Ranma will be alright..." Usagi thought to herself, concerned.

Chapter 12

    Ranma tried to keep his composure as he considered the fact that there was a voice speaking to him in his mind. Even though it/they used his own voice to do it, he wasn't inclined to jump to the conclusion that he was going crazy. After all of the magical and supernatural things that he had experienced throughout both of his lives, his first instinct was to assume that the source of the voice came from without rather than from within.
    "Who are you?" He demanded mentally. Then it occurred to him who it might be, considering what day it was and knowing his own luck, and his body tensed. "Hold on... You're Gaea, aren't you?"
    "I guess you're not too much of an idiot, after all," Gaea replied teasingly, who was still using his own voice. "Will wonders never cease?"
    It was with no small amount of effort that Ranma refrained from responding angrily, though said anger was quite evident on his face. "Look, I don't know what your deal is, but I'm not in the mood for it. And I'm definitely not interested in your reason for bothering me."
    "Is that so?" Gaea wondered, seemingly to herself, before her tone became a bit more chipper. "Well, that's okay. I was going to be considerate and warn you first, but I'm not adverse to springing a surprise on you."
    "What surprise?" Ranma asked warily, fearing what the answer would be.
    He could hear the grin in Gaea's voice when she said, "Look behind you."
    When he turned around and looked, he found the Kinzuishou floating in the air before him. It was an arm's length or so away, and it was level with his chest. He'd never seen it before, but he had learned about it in his previous life from books that either mentioned or covered the time when Titan had caused widespread death and destruction while wandering the Earth in search of it. It had been said that the Golden Kingdom's royal family had been entrusted with the Kinzuishou for safekeeping, both for their role in Titan's downfall and also for being one of the few people to resist swearing allegiance to him and helping in his search. That was how the Golden Kingdom had been born, as well as the creation of the place where it had been established.
    That the Kinzuishou was unsealed, and had appeared before him at Gaea's command, could only mean one thing. However, before he could make any attempt to dissuade Gaea from going through with it, or take any action to avoid it, he found the Kinzuishou rocketing toward his chest. He raised his forearms to block it on reflex, but he found the effort wasted when the Earth's sailor crystal phased through flesh and bone to enter his chest unimpeded.
    What happened next was a memory that would remain very unclear to him, except for the knowledge that a fundamental part of his nature had been changed; and with it the physical side of him had followed suit, in compliance with said change. He would always remember it as a very confusing experience, where he hadn't known up from down, if he'd really tasted sounds, or whether he'd been an individual that had been at two different places at once while also being two different people in the same place at the same time.
    When she next became aware of herself and her surroundings, she wasn't at all surprised to find herself lying on the ground, with her face pressed into the grass. It also came as no surprise when she felt her bare breasts being compressed by the weight of her body, since sailor senshi were always female.
    As she picked herself up from the ground and got to her feet, she neglected to pick up the towel that had hung from her neck, since she wasn't in any kind of mood to take it into consideration. However, rather than feel angry as she normally would, she was filled with a sense of hollowness: not only because her right to choose had been violated, but also due to the unwanted effects that the changes would more than likely have on her life — effects that jeopardized the life that she knew how to live, the one that she had made sacrifices to have.
    The time for anger and frustration being followed by resignation was over. She was tired of wasting her energy trying to fight what others imposed upon her, only to give in and have to deal with it anyway. That aside, it was too late to do anything that would make a difference, even had she been in the mood to try. And that left her feeling kind of lost, not knowing what to do. What was she supposed to do, if not nothing?
    "So," Gaea spoke to her, now using her female voice, "what do you think?"
    Unlike before, Ranma could actually feel her presence, and where it was coming from. When she turned to the side and looked, she found her floating nearby, looking like a mirror image of herself save for the fact that she was completely naked, looked proud, and stood with her arms akimbo. For some reason she got the impression that Gaea was feeling concerned, but decided that she was just imagining it.
    "Of what?" She asked flatly.
    Gaea pouted. "What do you mean, 'of what?' Isn't it obvious?"
    When she didn't get a reply, and Ranma continued to stare at her with a blank expression on her face, she frowned. Then she perked right back up and asked, "Okay, then what do you think about... this?"
    With her last spoken word, not only did Ranma find her body unresponsive to her commands, but all of her clothes had simply winked out of existence. When she decided it was useless to struggle, she calmed down and focused her attention on the air around her, having noticed a change. Not only did it seem to be charged with energy, but it was also on the move, all around her.
    The wind began to swirl about her, from the ground up, much like a whirlwind. The first thing the wind did was lift up her hair, which had lost its hair tie in addition to having grown long enough to reach her waist, and somehow managed to weave it into a braid and keep it that way. Then she felt the wind caressing her skin, as it moved up her body in a somewhat sensuous manner, and she found her feet leaving the ground. Next, the whirlwind began to carry earth and water from some unknown source, which mixed together to form mud. It wasn't long before the cool mud was being applied to various parts of her body, and by the feel of it had focused primarily on her torso, followed by some noticeable attention to her hands, feet and calves. Then, suddenly, fire came into being and enveloped all of the mud; however, while it was hot enough to dry it out quickly, the flames that licked her skin did no more than feel warm and ticklish. When the fire extinguised itself, the dried-out mud left behind began to fracture and crumble, and from the developing cracks beams of brilliant light began to burst forth. Finally, as if the light was escaping due to a building pressure, the rest of the dried-out mud was blown away and her world became white.
    By the time that she could see again, she had already felt herself being settled onto the ground. She immediately began to inspect her sailor senshi uniform, whose color theme was carmine and gold. In fact, the gold was so radiant that the reflected light from the sun made it shine as if from incandescence.
    "What did you think of that, huh?" Gaea asked, with a self-satisfied smile. "I figured I'd try out a transformation sequence at least once, like you see on TV, since I had the opportunity. You can regard it as a sort of launching ceremony, I guess." She paused and her brow furrowed. "Wait, are you even listening to me?"
    Ranma was so caught up with looking at her uniform (due to the overwhelming fact that it would define her existence for the rest of her life) that she was only vaguely aware of what Gaea had been saying to her. Which was just as well once she saw her new wings, which were of particular interest and roused a number of ideas on how to take advantage of them. Most of the feathers were carmine in color save for the primary and secondary remiges, which had gold stripes starting halfway down their length before their tips appeared to be dipped in the same color.
    Gaea released a sigh of resignation when she didn't receive an answer, much less a sign that she was being acknowledged. "Here, let me help you with that."
    Ranma experienced a bit of vertigo as her perspective changed, showing her what Gaea was seeing instead of what her own eyes saw. Since complaining seemed useless, she decided to just be quiet and remain still in order to let her new sailor power guardian do her thing, with said thing being an inspection that required her to float around her body in one complete revolution.
    She couldn't help being a bit impressed by what she saw. The color of the uniform was carmine, and was a single piece as opposed to the uniforms worn by most of the other sailor senshi in the solar system, which looked more like leotards that'd had skirts added to them. The miniskirt was pleated, with the underside of the pleats done in gold. The exception was a large portion of the front, which had a flat surface for the sake of displaying a detailed image (in gold) of a phoenix in flight. As for the requisite sailor collar, it was gold and had a pair of stripes along the hem that were the same color as her uniform. The bow immediately below the collar was gold, and at its center was a clear, highly-faceted and round-shaped gem that treated the eye to an iridescent light show. The bow at the small of her back was also gold-colored, except it had four loops in the shape of butterfly wings, as well as the same number of trailing ribbons (which were long enough to touch the back of her calves). On the shoulder straps of the uniform were epaulettes made of feathers, matching the kind from her wings. They had a downy base, and from it a number of feathers fanned out beyond her shoulders. The final part of her uniform consisted of gold chains that had been weaved together to form a girdle. The plate over its buckle bore a relief of the symbol that represented Earth, and each of the four sections within the twice-bisected circle had the same kind of gem set into them as the one attached to the center of the front bow.
    Beyond the centerpiece of the outfit, she wore gold-colored sandals that laced up the length of her calves. On her hands were fingerless gloves that were the same color as the sandals and each were lined at their base with down, where several feathers fanned out at an angle that put some distance between them and the skin of her forearms. Both her toenails and fingernails were carmine in color, with golden tips. She also wore lipstick and eyeshadow that was the same color as the majority of her nails, while her eyes were lined with the minority. A gold-colored ribbon was twined with the plaits of her braid, beginning at the nape of her neck and finishing where it was tied into a bow, near the braid's end. Unlike the other sailor senshi she wore neither earrings nor a choker, and the tiara was the kind that lay on top of the head instead of across the forehead. The tiara in question was made out of gold, had a center that was twice as tall as its sides, and its wire structure was artfully designed to depict the four natural elements. On each side was what appeared to be a gust of wind, blowing towards the center while also curling back on itself from above. Following them was a wave of water, presumably being pushed by the wind, with their crests touching the next element. At the center was a round-cornered cube, representing the earth element, and inside of it was set the same kind of gem that could be found on the front bow of the uniform and the plate on the girdle. The last element, fire, was above the earth element, whose flames curved both inward and outward as they rose upward.
    Gaea was floating in front of Ranma again when she disengaged the change of perspective, smiling expectantly. "So? It's good, right? I had some practice making Sailor Moon's uniforms, though it was easier to come up with something for you since I know your tastes."
    Gaea's words may have been innocuous, but it ignited a familiar spark within Ranma, who felt herself getting angry. There she was, her life irrevocably changed against her will, and the person responsible for it kept acting as if nothing of consequence had happened. She wasn't yet sure how to use her anger, or even if she should, so she settled for seething and glaring at the one responsible for how she was feeling.
    Gaea noticed and frowned, looking confused. "What's wrong?"
    "'What's wrong?'" Ranma replied, as something snapped inside. Whether due to being overwhelmed or shocked by how her life had suddenly changed, the hollow feeling that she had started with began to fill rapidly, and not with pleasant emotions. "What's wrong!? I'll show you what's wrong!"
    Guided by a new instinct, she willed her sailor senshi outfit away and returned to being "normal." Then she immediately began to stomp her way into the house, with the intention of finding her mother. On her way through the house she reasoned with herself that what she planned to do would get the inevitable over and done with, but — in reality — she was feeling sorry for herself, wanting to lash out, and the perfect target was none other than herself. She was upset — near tears, actually — and not thinking rationally, and it seemed like a good idea to do to herself what life seemed intent on doing with her regardless of what she desired.
    When she barged into the family room, she must have been quite a sight to those within. Not only was she female once more, but she wasn't wearing anything from the waist up. On top of that, the emotional turmoil being expressed by her face was actually quite alarming, if for no other reason than it not being something that would have normally been expressed by the owner of said face.
    Her father and Soun were playing a game of Go, but they hadn't taken their attention away from the board since it wasn't all that strange for people to be causing a ruckus, and neither had sensed an incoming attack or a dangerous presence. Her mother and Kasumi, who were sitting at the table drinking tea and eating senbei, had looked up at the disturbance and showed surprise at her appearance, with her entrance tinging their surprise with concern.
    Before either woman at the table could speak, she stared at her mother in a challenging manner and loudly declared, "I've decided to live the rest of my life as a girl and there's nothing that you can do or say that will change my mind!"
    Her father's reaction was predictable, whose face had gone pale along with the look of shock. However, his survival instincts had kicked in very quickly, and in a manner of seconds he had fled out of sight (what with her mother being present and all). Shocked horror had been Soun's initial reaction, but he had fallen unconscious just as he was about to make some form of protest (probably concerning the future of their schools), courtesy of a senbei that Kasumi had chucked at the pressure point located at the back of his neck. When the eldest Tendo daughter returned her attention to her after taking care of the unwanted distraction, it was difficult to discern all of the things expressed by her face, though worry was definitely present.
    After she took in the initial reactions, she focused all of her attention on her mother, with her arms crossed in an act of defiance. Her mother's demeanor had turned serious in response to her declaration, with her eyes boring into her own, trying to weigh and measure what she saw there. A tense silence dominated the room for a time, as she and her mother continued to stare at each other.
    Finally, her mother stood up and approached her. When she stood before her, she studied her critically before pulling her into a hug. She closed her eyes and didn't resist, knowing what would come next and doing her best to hold back the tears. After all, the last occasion where her mother had hugged her under such circumstances had been the time that she had caught her crossdressing (thanks to Happosai), and had tried to go through with committing seppuku while under the impression that she had been unmanly.
    Even though she felt like dying at that moment, and her opinion of Gaea made it unpleasant when she considered having to work with her, like before she would have to run away — only this time never to return. She wouldn't like it, much less be happy about it, but the fact remained that there was a place in the world for Sailor Gaea, and who was she to be selfish and off herself when she may be needed?
    So, with her expectations thus set, it was both unexpected and unbelievable to hear her mother say, "I'm so happy that this day has finally arrived. With this you have fulfilled your contract by proving your manliness, and now I no longer have to fear the consequence of not having done so ever coming to pass."
    Thinking that it was some kind of sick joke, Ranma pulled away from her mother and glared at her. How in the world could she be manly if she lived out her life as a girl? She had come to expect how strange her mother could be about certain things, but she couldn't even begin to understand what her mother's reasoning could be if her words were spoken in truth.
    "Is there something wrong?" Her mother asked, with a look of confusion and concern that appeared to be genuine.
    Under the emotional strain that she was under, Ranma couldn't help snapping back. "Of course there is! How can I be manly if I'm a girl!?"
    Her mother looked even more confused before she appeared to come to a realization and said, "First, tell me this: how far are you willing to go to be a girl? Would you abandon all of your responsibilities as a man?"
    Between having no choice in being a girl, and feeling a morbid curiosity for how her mother might respond to her answer, Ranma nodded her head. "Yeah, I would."
    Rather than the disappointment that she had expected (at the very least), her mother smiled with a mixture of approval and pride. "A man is a master of his own destiny, my child; it matters not what you look like. One can't be a master of their destiny if they are a slave to the decisions and expectations of others. While it may seem — at times — wrong to not give what others have come to expect from you, or to change your mind, sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do in order to be free to pursue what they desire out of life. Do you understand?"
    While Ranma did, seeing as her father was a perfect example of someone who abused such notions (and might even explain some things about her parents' relationship), it still seemed too good to be true, and something about it seemed to bug her. She had come to confront her mother with the expectation of having to abandon her life as Ranma, after all; but she just might get a new lease on life instead, considering the way that some things and people had changed around her.
    Since she wasn't sure what to do, and she had noticed that Kasumi was standing within sight, she looked toward the older girl and expressed a need for guidance. What she got was a smile and a gesture of encouragement, the kind that told her that what she should be doing was obvious. When she returned her attention to her mother, who was waiting patiently and smiling, she was finding it hard to keep her emotions in check, as she contemplated making a leap into her mother's embrace.
    Then, just as she was about to accept her good fortune, answer her mother and then hug her, it suddenly occurred to her what had been bugging her, which made her hesitate and doubt her mother all over again. "Wait... What about the crossdressing? As soon as you thought it was me in Akane's room, you came up with an excuse for my supposed behavior. And when you found me wearing that schoolgirl uniform later, you were ready to kill me instead of finding out if that's what I really wanted to do. What gives?"
    "I... have an issue with crossdressing," her mother admitted with a sigh. "You see, your grandfather — my father — got it into his head that a woman's prerogative to change her mind was manly." She turned her head away and closed her eyes, her facial features scrunching in memory of a very unpleasant time. "Between that and proving that it takes a real man to dress like a woman, well..." She glanced back at Ranma with a pleading look in her eyes, one that said that she didn't want to delve any further into the subject. "Let's just say that I was glad to marry your father and move away."
    Despite the nature of her mother's admission, Ranma found herself laughing, though it had taken a bit of time for her to graduate from giggles and chuckles. Her emotions had been running high, and she had been repressing them, but now she couldn't do anything about the outlet that her emotions had found. Even the emotions regarding other things began to bubble up, and she began to sob and choke up while she laughed.
    She really couldn't blame the hurt and betrayed look her mother gave her, whose eyes began to tear up, so she tried to remedy the misunderstanding before things got any worse, even though it was hard to speak between laughing and sobbing. "N-no...! I'm not laughing... at you!" As she wiped at the tears in her eyes, she tried and failed to compose herself. "Just... find i-it typical... Should have... kn-known... things would be l-like this...!"
    Her mother managed to recover and offered her a sad smile to go along with her open arms. "I suppose that means that we have at least one thing that we can relate to (aside from the obvious), doesn't it?"
    Ranma required no further invitation than that, and soon she was weeping in her mother's arms, who began to comfort her even though she could only guess as to what could have caused her child to become so upset. She was relieved that she still had her life as Ranma, especially since her lot in life might even improve after things settled down. Some of her tears were for her mother as well, because she could imagine what her childhood might have been like with a father matching the one described; and it made her wonder if her mother'd had any friends at all, and how much she might have been picked on. She might have been completely ostracized by her peers, for all that she knew, but it seemed to have been a traumatizing experience in any event. And then there was the Hestia side of herself, who had lacked what Ranma had in a mother and wanted to make the most of it, more than Ranma likely ever would have by himself.
    Kasumi looked on as this scene played out, feeling happy for both of them. She was also happy for a personal reason, though it wasn't as if she could have helped it, much less the circumstances that had made it difficult to spend any meaningful time with Ranma while she had been a guy.
    She glanced down at her father's unconscious form, who was one of the reasons for why it had been difficult to interact with Ranma when he had been a guy, and realized that not everything about what had happened would turn out well. There was no doubt in her mind that her father would be the cause of many headaches in the days to come.

    When Ranma was all cried out, she excused herself to the bedroom that was used by her family. She was feeling a little light in the head, and her body had a mild case of the shakes, but in a strange way she felt rather good. Still, she needed some space and privacy after everything that had happened to her.
    She also decided that she was going to turn in early, so she took out a futon from the closet and got her bed ready for later. When she was done with that, she opened up the window to allow the cool night air into the room before lying down on her futon.
    As she stared up at the ceiling, her thoughts were inevitably drawn toward her mother. If she had learned anything about her by then, it was that she wasn't the only one to be raised by a father that caused a lot of grief. That, and her belief that her mother held strange notions regarding manliness were reinforced, even if they made a strange sort of sense. It certainly explained why her mother was dead-set (potentially literally) on being dictated by obligation and expectation, seeing as doing the opposite was considered manly. Now that she was a girl full-time, she wondered if her mother would hold her to a different standard or expect her to follow her example.
    Next, she began to wonder about Akane, Ukyo, Shampoo and Kodachi, and what kind of terms they would be on with her when they next met. She could imagine that they weren't happy about her becoming Sailor Gaea, but she was more worried about the fact that she was no longer the man that they had desired and fought over on top of that. However, she could move on without them if she needed to, now that the Hestia side of her made her more aware and intolerant of their true characters. And after what Akane had done to her in her own petty pursuit to become a sailor senshi, she wasn't about to treat her any more special than the others.
    The future was certainly going to be a lot more different than she would have imagined it being over a month ago. Being a sailor senshi aside, in all likelihood her family would have to find a new place to live, now that she could no longer marry a Tendo. (And she wasn't going to even contemplate the possibility that something could be arranged between herself and Soun.) Seeing as the other sailor senshi still went to school, she could probably expect her school life to be different; and if she didn't change schools, then she would likely have an uphill battle trying to convince the other girls to accept her as being one of them. And now that she was going to live her life as a girl, there would be other things that she would have to decide on: such as which sex to be interested in, whether she should seek that kind of relationship at all, and if she should go so far as to get married and start a family. Hopefully — by the time she made those decisions — she'll also have a firmer grasp on her identity, seeing as she had yet to have enough time and opportunity to reconcile her past and present lives.
    Her thoughts were interrupted by a familiar presence, and Gaea appeared beside her futon while her eyes had been closed during the act of blinking. She assumed the seiza sitting position even though she wasn't in contact with the floor, and not only did she still look like her double but continued to go about her business in the nude.
    "Have you no shame?" Gaea asked while looking pointedly at her new sailor senshi's chest, seeing as it was still bare.
    "As if you're one to talk," Ranma retorted, as she continued to stare up at the ceiling. "I could ask you the same thing."
    "Nonsense," Gaea disagreed, who grinned impishly. "What I'm doing is called flattery and self-indulgence; you're just being negligent."
    Ranma didn't bother responding to that, and instead switched gears and thought about her sailor power guardian. Now that she had calmed down and had a better perspective of recent events, she didn't so much resent Gaea than feel annoyed with her, which was how she usually felt about those who thought they had a right to mess with her life in some way or another. That, and she was already beginning to realize that the single choice that had been taken away from her by Gaea had greatly relieved her of the unwanted position that many of her own choices had put her in. With the insight that she had gained from the Hestia side of herself, she could appreciate being free from all of the chains that had been weighing her down, with many of them being self-imposed because she had not known any better than to pick what she had once perceived as being the lesser of the evils among her options.
    After giving Gaea the silent treatment for a moment, she finally said, "You knew what was going to happen with my mother. You provoked me, didn't you?"
    The expression on Gaea's face turned solemn. "I did."
    Ranma paused before she asked, "So... why me?" She glanced over at Gaea for the first time since her arrival, looking her straight in the eye. "I wasn't a candidate, I wasn't interested, and I didn't want my sex decided for me."
    "What can I say?" Gaea replied, with a casual shrug of her shoulders. "The others were rubbish, and there was one thing in particular that you understood much better than they did, which was a crucial deciding factor."
    "And what was that?" Ranma found herself asking.
    For the first time since she had appeared, Gaea abandoned her nudity by manifesting the same sailor senshi uniform that Ranma had worn earlier. She swept her hands over her body and said, "I chose to incorporate a phoenix into the theme of your uniform for more than one reason. First is the notion by some that change is eternal by way of a cycle, where the phoenix lives, dies, and is then reborn to start the process all over again. The phoenix is also attributed as being the herald of a new era by others. In particular, it is believed that peace and prosperity can be assured when a phoenix is present, while the opposite is true should it be absent."
    Gaea paused, to allow what she had said to sink in, before she continued. "Life isn't all about peace and prosperity, so — while I think it's time to improve things around the world — I am unwilling to impose such conditions on the world indefinitely." Her gaze softened as she looked Ranma in the eye. "You know how it feels when your options are limited, when you'd rather do other things with your life. I don't want someone who will force everyone to live according to their own beliefs and standards. Aside from taking care of dangers that would threaten to annihilate all life on Earth, I want my sailor senshi to be very hands-off. Do you understand?"
    Ranma sat up and turned at the waist so she was facing Gaea, as she considered the depths of her words. While she didn't like the idea of allowing bad things to happen, when she was in a position to do something about it, she understood her reasoning in the sense that not all days could be sunny: because life also needed some rain; not only to thrive, but to be diverse. After all, it wasn't by any sense of morality that nature was based upon, in order to restrict any particular thing to a specific fate, but was itself ever-changing and reinventing itself, exploring possibilities. It would probably take some time for her to fully accept that there was a place in the world for people who did horrible things, but for the time being she could accept that it wasn't her place to tell others how they should live or force them to live a certain way, based on personal experience.
    "I understand," she replied, before she turned her head away and quietly added, "And... thanks, I guess. You did this for my benefit too, right?"
    She felt embarrassment and nervousness from Gaea, as well as a trace of fear, so she looked back and saw that Gaea had bowed her head to hide her face. This sense — that she had disregarded earlier — had allowed her to guess Gaea's intentions, though she wasn't sure about the reason for her reaction just now (especially the fear). Perhaps she wasn't the only one to undergo a fundamental change when she had become a sailor senshi, and becoming a sailor power guardian had come with its own brand of change. It might even explain why Gaea acted calm and mature on the surface, while underneath she felt plenty of conflicting emotions, almost as if she were dealing with something new, unknown and scary.
    She decided that she would figure it all out in due time, so for the time being she reached out and tried to hold Gaea's hand. When she discovered that she could, she gave it a gentle squeeze and softly said, "Hey. I may not know everything that's happened, but we're in this together for a long time, right? So..." She offered Gaea a hopeful smile. "Would you like to be friends?"
    Gaea glanced up, smiled shyly, then dropped her gaze and nodded her head in confirmation. Ranma felt the efflorescence of hope coming from her, and in response she began to feel optimistic about their future together.


    A few days after becoming a sailor senshi found Ranma in said role while flying to the moon, in order to meet her fellow sailor senshi per her own arrangement. She could have teleported there, but the novelty of flight had yet to wear off and taking the time to see what it was like in space had its own appeal.
    However, between the Earth and the moon, she found her thoughts drifting back to the last few days. It wasn't hard, actually, since there wasn't a lot to look at in space unless she had a telescope or deviated too far from her destination. Since she didn't have the former, and the latter had people waiting for her arrival, it was a lost cause before it became a lost opportunity.
    She still wondered how Akane, Ukyo, Shampoo and Kodachi were doing, since she had yet to see them since the day that they had gone to Elysium. She hadn't really bothered to check on any of them personally, for a variety of reasons, though she was pretty sure that Akane had yet to leave her bedroom. Gaea had assured her that they were all alive, even if they weren't very enthused about life at the moment (or of her).
    Her father had yet to crawl out from whatever rock he had hidden under, though she was sure that it would only be a matter of time before he snuck back to check on the situation. Soun had spent most of his time in bed lamenting how things had turned out, partly because her father wasn't there to provide support. It probably hadn't helped when he had gone to enlist Akane's aid, to convince her fiancé to change "his" mind, because he had gotten the boot for his troubles.
    As for her mother: things were looking promising. While they had spent more time looking for a new place to live and making other plans and preparations depending on what they found where, they'd had some time to sit down and finally get themselves acquainted. It was amazing how much they had in common, though her mother was either embarrassed or ashamed about having some of the interests that they shared since they were unbecoming of a lady. But most of their emotional bonding had come from relating their pasts, due to both of them having lonely and rough childhoods. Beyond that, they'd had an enjoyable time preparing a few meals together.
    Being one of the few people to have an idea as to what had gone on, beyond those who were supposed to know, Nabiki hadn't had any difficulty in figuring out why she was now a girl and staying that way. Of course, since Gaea knew what the middle Tendo daughter had planned in the event that she became a sailor senshi, she had to buy her silence. Well, to be more precise, she had said that she wanted to show her how much her friendship would mean to her, and had given her the exact location (as well as one of the items as an example) of a sunken treasure. It would probably take her a few years to do what needed to be done to get it, but it would be legitimate, leave no mystery that would require an investigation, and there would be some notoriety as a bonus. It had been nice to sit down and have an intellectual discussion with her afterward, and she wondered if she might be able to get her and Ami together with her sometime.
    Kasumi had decided to accept Cologne's invitation to go to the Joketsuzoku's village, and they were slated to leave in a few days. Once they were there, she and Gaea were going to perform a miracle to prove that Kasumi was the one spoken of in one of their bedtime stories. While the village learned of their past and regained some of their lost fighting styles and techniques, she hoped that they would rescind the "kiss of death" law. Gaea had explained that the law had started out innocently enough, where Joketsuzoku were chosen to follow outsider females to the ends of the Earth (because they didn't know where their lost princess would be) based on their ability to overcome the obstacles that might get in their way. Over time — and due to cultural changes — the reason for why they had followed outsider females had become obscure, so they had changed it so that it would make sense to them (at the time) rather than abandon a long-standing tradition.
    One surprise had been Konatsu. Since she had been wondering where the kunoichi had gone off to, Gaea had told her that she was working at a ryokan as a nakai, and that the owner (a sweet, old lady) had been nice enough to take the new girl under her wing. After her meeting with the sailor senshi was over, she had planned on making a surprise visit to see how she was doing.
    And then there was Gaea, who seemed so wise and mature in some ways yet so childish in others. She could already tell that they were going to be like sisters before too long, though it wasn't going to be easy getting there. While Gaea had some trust issues (because she said that she was accustomed to knowing what everyone in the world was thinking, yet she — as her sailor senshi — had become the third such person whose mind had become off-limits to her), she also seemed to need someone to trust, as a sort of security blanket.
    Gaea had explained how she had lived as nothing more than a consciousness up until the time that she had become a sailor senshi, and that her potential was limited to that of the sentient life that she had arose from. Since no life native to the planet was omniscient, neither was she, and at best she could possess and control two or three individuals depending on the difficulty of what she wanted them to do. It was far from ideal, which is why planets usually needed a physical presence to be more proficient — thus the need for having sailor senshi.
    Basically, Gaea had been reluctant to hand over some of her control and an amount of power beyond what she herself could access to someone that she could no longer control directly, which included the inability to read her mind and possess her body. She was used to knowing exactly how to handle others because she could read their mind and know everything about them, so she had a lot of reservations toward those that she had to place hope and trust in, which had been multiplied by the thought that there could also be such a person who could also have access to her power.
    Gaea had also admitted that her new connection to the physical side of life gave her the added quality of being emotional, rather than just being intellectual. That made it easy for her to be flustered by her, Usagi and Selene, the three people (to date) that she couldn't read the minds of and thus find the comfort that came with being the one in control. When she told Gaea that the inability to be in complete control of one's circumstances was very natural (which was ironic, really), it seemed to make her more relaxed to the idea that she would have to get used to it.
    When she reached the moon and found the palace, she saw everyone waiting for her in front of the main entrance, who were illuminated by the lampposts along the path that they stood upon as well as by the light coming from the palace. And by "everyone," that included the guardian cats in their human guises (for her sake) and the "outer" sailor senshi. She'd never seen the former when they weren't cats before, and the latter because they'd had different duties than the guardian sailor senshi back in Hestia's time.
    Upon landing before the group, Usagi (who was dressed as Neo-Queen Serenity) broke away from the others and greeted her with a hug. She both allowed it and returned it, feeling relieved that she could do so freely without feeling uncomfortable about it for one reason or another: not only did she consider herself a girl now, but she no longer had to worry about fiancées or what they might think if they'd seen or heard what she was currently doing with another woman.
    After Usagi pulled away, she regarded Sailor Gaea with a look of concern and asked, "How are you doing? Is everything okay?"
    Ranma responded with a slight nod of her head and smiled. "Things have turned out better than I would have thought." Her smile turned slightly sardonic. "Of course, I hadn't been expecting this to happen, so..."
    Usagi looked her over appraisingly before making a good-natured response. "Well, I think you turned out pretty good. It's not fair that you get to wear those sandals, though... I'm kind of jealous."
    "They're alright," Ranma replied noncommittally, with a shrug of her shoulders. "Anyway, I wanted to meet you guys so we could—"
    With a look of excitement on her face, Usagi took one of Ranma's hands and began to drag her toward the others, who had — depending on the individual — been waiting with either an eager or reserved anticipation. "Right! Everyone's been waiting to see you! There's so much to talk about! And you can meet Setsuna, Haruka, Michiru and Hotaru, and..."
    Ranma was suffused with a feeling of warmth in her chest and went along with Usagi, deciding that the business end of her reason for being there could wait a little while longer. She couldn't help smiling as the others began to crowd around her and tried to start several conversations at once.
    "Nope," Ranma concluded to herself, "this isn't bad at all."