DISCLAIMER: Relatively standard stuff. Existing characters are properties of the people who made them up. Mitsuki, and several other characters are mine, and so's the story, hence ownership and copyright of them belongs to me. Contact me at domino@linksnet.nu if you want permission to use anything I've written for whatnot purposes.

WARNING: Some lemonish stuff and bad language in this chapter, too. Read at your own risk!

TRUTH

by

Raymond Cooper

Chapter 13

** No Time For Usagi **

"You look like you'll have fun," Mitsuki commented critically from behind Hotaru. The younger senshi turned to face the older.

"Huh?"

"Skimpy black dress. No bra - not that you need one, sorry - and knee-high boots. Someone is out to get lucky tonight." Mitsuki chuckled as she folded her arms, leaning back on the wall behind her.

Hotaru turned back to the mirror, straightened her dress and checked her makeup. Everything looked good. And this time, she hadn't had Minako's help, which was a bonus. But the older woman's carefully chosen words made her reconsider. Maybe she should wear something else? Maybe she should find a jacket. Or a looser dress. Or something she actually *could* wear a bra under. Something. Anything! There was a knock at the door.

It was Ranma. "Usagi and Mamoru are ready to go, Hotaru-chan. And the taxi'll be at the bottom of the stairs in five minutes' time. Ready?"

Hotaru took another look in the mirror - and decided this was no time for nerves. Well, not real ones. She could fake the rest. She reached to open the door, but Mitsuki grabbed her hand, and pressed something into it. She looked down, and was horrified. A foil packet? She didn't need one of these. The blush was unbidden, and when she looked up into Mitsuki's face... she didn't see the hard, competitive look she'd expected - instead, she saw concern, sadness - and something deeper that she couldn't pick out. Fear? Why would that have come to mind?

She didn't know. But the woman's face softened, and she nodded at the door. "He's waiting," was all she said before stepping back into the shadows. Hotaru watched a moment, then slipped the packet into her handbag, slung it over her shoulder, and opened the door.

Ranma stood there in a tuxedo - the same one he'd worn last time, Hotaru realised, that had been expertly repaired. Looked like Makoto had been doing some serious work around the place.

Usagi and Mamoru were standing outside the front doors, waiting anxiously for Hotaru and Ranma. Both exited, and closed the doors behind them, then they all started off down the long stairs. At the bottom, the taxi pulled up just as they stepped off the last of the stairs, and Ranma held one back door open for Hotaru while Mamoru held the front open for Usagi. Then both climbed in themselves either side of Hotaru, Mamoru sitting behind Usagi. The taxi headed off to the restaurant.

Naturally, the discussion turned to which eating establishment they would eat at. "I hear the Hungry Cat has had good reviews," Usagi mentioned. Ranma turned slightly pale.

"Er, let's go someplace else," he suggested quickly.

"How about the Thunderbird?" Mamoru asked. No one had any complaints for that place, so they headed in that direction.

******

Keitaro answered the knock at the door of the Hinata Sou. Ah. He knew the person. "Mutsumi?" he asked, quietly.

Mutsumi Otohime nodded cheerfully. "Hello, Keitaro. I've got a favour to ask - oh dear, those look bad!" She reached out and touched one of Keitaro's more prominant, visible bruises. He winced, and looked nervously back into the dorm's lounge. He stepped outside, and pulled the door shut. Curious, angry eyes followed him.

"It's not safe for you to be here, Mutsumi," he whispered quietly, urgently. Mutsumi took no notice. "Keitaro, can you do me a favour?"

"Mutsumi - if Naru finds you here -"

Mutsumi interjected. "It's important, Keitaro-kun... I need to go somewhere for a few hours in secret and need someone to look after my sister. Can I trust her to you?"

Keitaro was momentarily taken aback. "Sister? I didn't know you had a sister!" Then he quietened down again. "If you'll leave right away, yes, I'll look after your sister."

Mutsumi smiled widely, and stepped aside. Behind her was a fourteen year old girl, obviously Japanese with the dark hair and skin tone. Keitaro idly wondered why Mutsumi didn't look nearly as Japanese as her younger sister did. "This is Natsumi. She'll be no problem for you, Keitaro-kun. I'll only be two hours." She smiled again. "Thank you for looking after her for me." She gave Keitaro a light kiss on a cheek, and headed off down the stairs towards the road. Keitaro stared at the girl.

He found it weird she was wearing a pair of headphones and some kind of VR eyegear at night, but shrugged. The Otohime's seemed to be weird, all of them, anyway. He gestured towards the stairs. "Want to go get something to eat?"

Natsumi smiled. "Yes, thanks you, Keitaro."

******

The taxi driver overcharged them, but Hotaru, Ranma, Usagi and Mamoru were at the restaurant, and had been seated almost immediately. That was a pleasant surprise, and thus the bad experience with the taxi was soon forgotten. Now they chatted amicably between themselves.

Ranma and Mamoru were both surprised to find Usagi being polite to Ranma and Hotaru. While Usagi wasn't nasty by nature, she had a little bit of a jealous streak. Perhaps she hadn't wanted to ruin her last evening for a few weeks with her boyfriend, Ranma thought. Mamoru agreed, although neither knew they'd each had the same thought.

The entrees came fast, and the service was good. Once they'd finished, they ordered a few drinks, and began to talk in earnest, about how things were going, where they'd all come from, and the rest.

Hotaru started.

"My life's been weird. For years, I was sick. Having attacks that weakened me. And they only got worse. It turned out I was possessed by..." she gave Ranma a meaningful glance, "an evil entity that wanted to use my... me. I was regressed to a baby... and given to two friends of ours to raise. But... another friend who has access to... some arcane knowledge, she found a way to speed up my aging process to what it should have been." She lowered her head a little. "Since then, I've been catching up on my school work, trying to find out how badly affected I was by everything." She didn't say much more of meaning. Ranma raised eyebrows most of the way through. Usagi watched Ranma carefully, trying to work out if Hotaru telling him all that had been such a good idea. But at least she'd left out any references to the senshi.

Mamoru leaned forward. "So, how are Michiru and Haruka? I haven't seen then in a while now."

"They had to go away," Hotaru said quietly, looking down. "Setsuna said they had to go away."

"But why?" Usagi asked. "Why would she want them gone? That's what I can't understand."

"Setsuna?" Ranma asked.

"A friend of ours," Usagi replied.

"She's got long flowing green hair, and a staff, Ranma," Hotaru supplied. Usagi glared at the younger girl. "What? She does!"

"Long green hair and a staff...?" Ranma was reminded of something, but couldn't remember exactly. It rang a very serious bell in his head, anyway. He decided to let it roll around in his head for a while. Mamoru commented on his own history, before Usagi took centre-stage with an epic retelling of the life of Usagi Tsukino, all the highs and lows (with bits edited for public viewing).

After a time, about the time their mains arrived, it was Ranma's turn. He glanced at Hotaru, then looked across the table at Usagi. "I think it's time I told you all about some of my life. It's a long story, but exciting. And may... shed some light on recent events, and events that will come." He settled in to tell his story.

******

Keitaro sat next to Natsumi in an ice-cream parlour. The lights protected against the cold darkness outside, and regardless, Keitaro found himself shivering. Natsumi didn't take the VR headset off at all, preferring to keep it on. How she navigated or saw was anyone's guess. Keitaro didn't know how.

She finished off a sundae, and waited. Not for Keitaro, he noted, but something else. Like she was listening for something. He supposed it was something on her headphones, but after a moment, she dropped them down around her shoulders, and continued waiting.

"Is there something I can help with, Natsumi-chan?" he asked.

The girl turned her head and looked at him, then turned away. She turned back a moment later, and stared. At least, Keitaro assumed she was staring. A hand came up and lightly brushed over his bruises. He found she had the same light touch her older sister did. It was a nice touch. And the look on her face... sad... so sad...

"Maybe I can help you with something, Keitaro-kun." She stood, and started walking past him. A hand gripped his, and pulled him from the chair easily. "Come with me."

They walked outside, down two blocks, over another three. Then they stopped by an alleyway. "Natsumi-chan," Keitaro said nervously, looking around, "It's not very safe here. We should go."

Natsumi turned, and grinned. For the first time in several days, she dropped the VR headset, showing her eyes. "Keitaro-kun." They glowed, red, in the darkness. Keitaro found that frightening, incredibly so, but was rooted to the spot. She gestured down the alleyway. "Down there is the means to be strong enough to stand your ground." She raised the headset again, and waited. Keitaro's feet made the decision.

Deep inside the alleyway, something stirred. Something big. Something strong. Something completely black, apart from two fiercely glowing white eyes.

******

"When I was young, my pop convinced my mum we'd go on a training trip. Just him and me. And we did." Ranma sighed. "For ten years, we wandered Japan and China. My dad couldn't read Chinese, which led to some interesting adventures there. But for me... it started at the house of a friend of pop's... Matsuda, I think his name was."

"First or last?" Hotaru asked.

"Does it matter?"

"Mitsuki's surname is Matsuda."

"Coincidence." Although, in Ranma's experience, there was little that coincidence actually accounted for. He felt that Fate was constantly laughing at him. "His daughter had run away from home, destroyed a large part of it, and we went looking for her. I... found her, and we talked. She gave me some advice that I didn't understand then so much as I do now. Don't rely on others. It's only you who can make things happen. Only you that you can really count on.

"She ran away, and I never saw her again." He frowned, and tried to remember something. Something about a green-haired woman...? Late at night? He couldn't remember, so he went on with his story. "Pop trained me in multiple forms of martial arts. While my pop might be a thief, and a weak person in general, he's very good with his combat skills. He taught me most of what I know. Experience taught me the rest. No matter what I feel for him... I owe him respect for teaching me about the ways of honour, and respect, and combat. Even if he doesn't have much of the first two." Ranma snorted. "Some of the attacks I learnt were things like the Nekoken... er, why I have my phobia of cats, remember?" he added when Usagi looked completely blank.

"Pop... engaged me to a girl without me knowing. Her name was Ukyou, and she was my best friend. Pop stole the dowry and took off with me. I thought it was a game, but it wasn't. We were supposed to take her with us, and we didn't. On our trip, pop found out a place called Jusenkyo. It's, um, a place of cursed springs. So we both got cursed, because of him. And another friend of mine... found us there, although we didn't know at the time.

"After Jusenkyo, we found out way to a village, where pops laid into a meal laid out on one of the tables. Turned out this was a prize feast for the winner of a combat competition... this was an Amazon village. And pop had just eaten the first prize. The winner wasn't very happy, and vowed to hunt me down." Ranma was skipping a few details so as not to bore his listeners. But they were hanging on every word. This was the most any of them had heard him speak.

"This girl was called Shampoo. She followed us back to Japan, where pop informed me I had been engaged to a child of a friend of his years before, when he had promised his firstborn son - me, his only born son - to one of his friend's daughters. That friend was Soun Tendo... Usagi, you know him, he was the one who dropped Akane off."

Usagi nodded at the memory.

"Akane got picked. And for a while, things seemed to be okay. There'd be no wedding, we hated each other. But... as time went by, and we faced trials together... we... found we did have feelings. Occasionally, Akane'd be very nice. Very. But at other times..." Ranma sighed, and looked off into the distance. "Akane... would be very violent. She didn't trust me. She was really aggressive. And other people didn't help me much. There was a guy called Kuno. He loved Akane, kept trying to beat us up. And my... friend and rival, Ryoga. Shampoo tried to kill me, then found out I was really a guy, and gave me the kiss of marriage - which means we're engaged. Then Ukyou turned up also... and I had three fiances. Kuno's sister, Kodachi, completely crazy like her brother, fell for me. I just couldn't win."

"Wait - this is in Nerima, right?" Mamoru asked. Ranma nodded. "Yeah... I thought so. We've seen some of that on the news. Very... powerful stuff."

"The world's nearly ended several times," Ranma grinned dimly. "A few months ago, I felt I could love Akane. We'd grown closer and closer... she wasn't being so violent. So we tried a marriage ceremony. And her sister, Nabiki, screwed it up for us. I think that was the last straw between us, though... Akane got worse again, I got sick of the bruises. When pop tried to teach me some ki attack combinations that he couldn't control himself, I used that as an excuse to get away from the dojo. I've got to repay the Tendo's. I broke up with Akane... for a lot of reasons. But I'm enjoying being away from her, you know? I'm not being attacked by her or anyone who loves her at all times of the day... I'm not being hit by my father for little or no reason... I'm not being used or abused by any of the Tendo sisters... it's nice just to lean back and relax."

"Ranma?" Usagi asked. "Why did Shampoo think you were a girl?"

"Um... you don't want to know."

"Yeah, I do."

Ranma shook his head. Hotaru leapt to his defence. "You expect some of these people to attack you now?"

"I've broken up with Akane for the last time. I hope." Ranma sighed, thankful for the interuption. "Nabiki'll stir up the Nerima pot good. She's probably telling them I abused her, or showed her disrespect or something." He shook his head. "Or even paying them. And she'll be making money on the side by taking bets on who'll lose and how fast against me. She's not so interested in attacking me directly. That's not Nabiki's way. She'll undermine my credibility or something, use these guys as a diversion. I wish I knew what she was up to."

Hotaru thought she might have a way to work on that, but said nothing. Ranma started eating his meal. "So, that's my life. It's been hard... but I've learnt a lot from it. That's how you gotta look at these things. Else... you go crazy, I guess." He shrugged.

Hotaru nodded beside him, and wrapped her arms around one of his arms, and laid her head on his shoulder. "Yes, sempai... and we like you just the way you are."

Ranma smiled.

******

Natsumi took Keitaro by the hand, and walked him back to the front door of the Hinata Sou. He was a little dazed, and one of the lenses of his glasses were cracked. His trousers and shirt were all mussed up, as well, with a tear in his shirt. He stared blankly at the door. Natsumi waved a hand in front of his eyes. "Are you alright, Keitaro-kun?"

Keitaro nodded distantly. Seeing... that monster had made him... very frightened. At least he'd retained bowel control... something he could be proud of. Natsumi hadn't when she was taken before their new king.

She let go of his hand. He seemed to wake up a little then. "What... what did it do to me?" he asked.

"Gave you what you wanted," Natsumi replied. "The strength to be able to stand up for yourself." There were footsteps behind them, and both turned around to see Mutsumi walk up with a smile on her face.

"Ah! Keitaro!" she said, happily. "I hope my sister wasn't a problem...?"

Keitaro shook his head. "No. Not at all." Natsumi wandered over to Mutsumi's side. He nodded goodbye to her. She nodded back. Nods of equals. Nods of gods.

Keitaro would understand soon, Natsumi thought. He would realise what had happened tonight. And when the seed within him fully flowered... it would be something of joy for her, and the others. She smiled, and left with her sister.

Keitaro continued on inside the dorm, heading for his room. Narusegawa intercepted him, and Kitsune pointedly looked away from the scene that was about to develop. Naru was mad.

"What was *she* doing here?" Narusegawa demanded. "You sleeping around now? You jerk!" She wound up, and sent one of her patented punches designed to send Keitaro flying dozens of metres.

But her fist slammed into his face... and he didn't move. And it was long seconds before Naru felt the pain of her broken fingers and pulped flesh. Keitaro just pushed past her, and headed towards his futon to sleep.

Narusegawa stared at her bloodied hand.

Then started to scream in pain.

******

Back at the Ai Sou, the girls had prepared for the return of Usagi and the others. They stood about the door to Usagi's old room, waiting. Steps came up the stairs, and Usagi came into view first, followed by Mamoru. Usagi's eyes grew wide as she saw the senshi up by her old room. Did this mean...? She took steps towards it, and opened the doors - all her furniture had been shifted back in, everything moved into place as she'd had it before having to have moved out. When she looked out again, she had tears in her eyes. "Thank you. Thank you all."

"Tonight I might get some sleep," Rei grumbled. But she winked at the two of them quickly before turning away and heading back towards her room.

Mamoru took Usagi into her room, and shut the door. "Ranma wanted it done so we could spend my last night in here. It's, uh, kind of soundproofed a little better than your previous one."

"Oh? Is it?" Usagi asked with a twinkle in her eye. "Then I guess you can make some more noise, then." She pushed him down on the bed, and they started to kiss.

******

Downstairs, Ranma and Hotaru were parting awkwardly. Neither knew what to say or do. Hotaru had something in her handbag that made her feel very nervous, and yet very... strong. Mature. Weirdly enough. She leaned up against him, then lifted her head and kissed him on the lips. Their first kiss. Neither wanted to break it. But they had to, in the end. Ranma gazed down with concern - were they moving too fast? Geeze, he hadn't even done this with Akane... well, there had been once or twice when he was possessed, or trying to make her feel better... but not because he really *really* wanted to, like he did now.

Hotaru was worried maybe they were moving too slow for Ranma, and fumbled in her handbag, pulling up the foil packet. She didn't have to say anything. After a confused glance, Ranma realised what it was, and shook his head. "Not tonight, Hotaru. Not... for a while, perhaps. I've... been hurt before. And I... want something like that... to be with someone I know is really special." He felt he had just put his foot in it, and winced inwardly.

But Hotaru understood. She smiled, and nodded. "Then, for now, sempai, it is holding hands and kissing. And maybe a little more, if you're a good boy." She winked so fast, Ranma wasn't sure he'd really seen her wink. Then she stepped back into her room, already peeling the dress off as the door slid shut. Ranma breathed a sigh of relief, and entered his own room, shutting the door behind him. It would be a long day for them tomorrow... both of them.

And neither knew just how much...

 

SAILOR MOON SAYS:

I am sorry, but the frequency of the chapters appearing on the net might stretch out a bit more than it has been, for the simple fact that I've started TAFE again now, and am stressing over that ;) As if that's not that much of a problem, classes have been rearranged, and I've got to turn up for an extra calss I originally didn't have to... and we've got major projects and functions to organise this semester... gah. So instead of every 1-3 days for a new chapter, expect one every 2-4. Sorry about this, but class is going to have to come first over all else. I'll try to keep it interesting, though :)

Once more, I want to thank those who have given reviews, especially the constructive ones. They've pointed out where I need to add some more lines in occasionally - Neptune and Uranus had been mentioned twice before this part, but were obscure references - and suggest I'm right in taking the story where I am taking it. I hope that holds true in later parts, where things will change. Thanks also for those who have sent email questions... I hope I've answered questions there as fully as you would have liked :)

In the next part? Hotaru starts a new school. Ranma... er, has some problems of a monstrous nature. And the thing is moving towards the next confrontation in this section of the arc. Things are heating up. Catch you then!

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