Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 8 - 9 ( Chapter 4 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 8: Oderint dum Metuant
      Bunk beds
      butting heads
      Hair Bomb
      Nabiki's Pictures

Chapter 9: Revelations Aren't Victories
      Queries and Repose
      Cooking Surprises
      First Cthonian Attack
      Dream of Fire
      Admiral Simson's Edge
      School Mafia
      Secret Techniques
      Opening Moves
      Sunday Concert
      Gambit Refused


I do not own any of the characters from Ranma 1 / 2, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ah My Goddess, or the Lovecraft Cycle involved in these stories.

C&C, MSTs are welcome


Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:

ftp :// -Semper-Morituri

(these are the original versions)

Chapter 8: Oderint dum Metuant

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Walt Kelly (Pogo Possum)

What has gone before:

     About Book 11, Akane and Soun Tendo throw Ranma out of the house, Nabiki, in the guise of a wish, follows him.  They meet pilots Shinji Ikari and Rei Ayanami, then pilots Asuka Soryu Langley and Jeffery Davis.

     The Pilots and the EVAs board the CVB-43 Coral Sea to sail to Tokyo, testing the pilot/EVA combinations on the trip.  The Great Old Ones Chaugnar Faugn and Rhan-Tegoth escape their somnambulance aboard ship and escape.  They are captured, then killed.  An Angel attempts to attack Unit 02, it is killed by Asuka and Jeff cooperating in Unit 02's entry plug.  Asuka realizes Jeff is her old friend from the Dreamlands, they tell Misato, who doesn't believe them.  Shinji finds he has a friend in the new pilot.

     With the arrival in Tokyo of all six pilots, the first battle against the school `mafia` goes entirely the pilots' way.  Moving Asuka and Jeff into their new quarters reveals a few new problems, and raised quite a few questions in all the pilots' and their guardians' minds.  An assassination attempt on Gendo doesn't go as planned.  Ranma's terrifying nightmares continue and take an unexpected twist, Nabiki also has one, intensified by Rei, who was under orders to.

     The first day of school increased the tensions between the pilots and the `school mafia`.  The new housemates settle in, with quite a few rough spots for all concerned.

     The Russians continue planning the defense of 'Rasputin's Legacy' at Tunguska.  General Borodin wants to avoid a conflict with the EVAs, a conflict that Stalin and other militarists are pushing for.

     Compatibility tests with Unit 02 and the pilots go over really well with Asuka, until Shinji steps in, she reluctantly agrees to allow them.  Much to the relief of NERV Security and the Marine guards.

     Nabiki, Admiral Simson, Hiroko and Jeff plan the defeat of the `school mafia` once and for all.

     Jeff meets with representives of the Council, and draws his plans to destroy the Cthonians, and regarding Nabiki's and Ranma's fate. 

Chapter 8: Oderint dum Metuant [Let them hate, as long as they fear]

Bunk beds

     Jeff heard and felt the soft foot falls around him.  He opened his eyes to see his roommate, he didn't think he was dancing, but that's what it looked like.  Jeff slipped out of his bedroll.  He was amazed that Ranma neither altered his patterns, nor struck him as he stood up.

     "Saotome-san, just what are you doing?  And do you do this every morning?"

     "Katas."  Ranma continued.

     Jeff watched him for several minutes.  Nabiki opened the door to the boys' room, watched Ranma going through the motions.  That seemed to be the first thing to disturb the patterns of his movements.

     "Saotome-san?  How high do you usually kick in your practice?" Jeff asked.

     Nabiki blanched when Ranma planted his foot right against Jeff's forehead.  She dreaded that the other boy would start a fight, Ranma had been pushing him as hard as he could.  Nabiki fully expected that would be the final straw.

     "Did you at least wash that first?" Jeff asked calmly.  He reached up and touched Ranma's foot.  "That's 5"7", call it 5'9", that's . . . 175 centimeters."  He shoved Ranma's foot off his head, and walked to his steamer trunk.

     Ranma returned to his practice, seemingly irritated he'd gotten no real reaction from the other boy.  Nabiki thought he was asking for it, Akagi-sensei wouldn't appreciate Ranma picking on the other pilots.

     Jeff pulled a folding carpenter's ruler from his trunk and measured the height of the ceiling.  "Well, that doesn't give me much space to deal with, but . . . " He turned to Nabiki, "When's breakfast?"

     Nonplused, "Ah, I don't know who's cooking," she admitted.

     "Well, I'll take care of that.  I hope you two don't mind omelets."  He left and headed to the kitchen.

     "Wimp."  Ranma smiled as the other boy left.

     "It's too early in the morning to start a war, Saotome," she told him, "Everybody knows that.  Except you."

     "This is terrific," Dr. Akagi commented.

     "I've never had any complaints," Jeff replied, "Although, it will take some time getting used to Japanese cooking."

     "You'll make a good wife someday," Ranma told him.

     Jeff stared down at his plate, certain there had been more food there a few moments ago.  "It least I have some useful skills."

     "What's that supposed to mean?" Ranma demanded.

     "Is there a professional, what art do you use anyway?" Jeff asked.

     "Kempo," Nabiki supplied, "No, there's no professional circuit.  Not like boxing."

     "Well, then Saotome-san, I suggest you save your wages.  Since you have no useful skills.  No skills that matter in the real world."

     "You want a rematch?" Ranma sneered.

     "That will put food on your table, how?" Jeff asked.

     "There are things that are more important than money!" Ranma intoned.

     "Like honor?" Jeff asked innocently.

     "Exactly," Ranma agreed.

     Jeff nodded, and got up from the table, putting the plate containing his remaining breakfast on the floor, well out of Ranma's reach.  He returned with one of the three boxed lunches he'd prepared, handed it to Ritsuko.  "With my and Saotome-san's compliments, sensei.  Ranma's going to be having honor for lunch, or honorably beating up the weak, to steal their lunches, in the finest tradition of Bushido militarism."

     Ranma and Ritsuko grimaced at the exchange.  Nabiki laughed.

     Commander Fuyutsuki thought he'd been meeting with these tedious people for hours, facing SEELE's spokesmen in the special conference room that projected their images from across the globe.

     "The processes continue," Chairman Kehl told Fuyutsuki, "But you are substantially behind schedule."

     "With the testing of the pilots and the EVAs completed," Fuyutsuki replied, "We can refocus our efforts on Human Complementation.  We will return to the existing schedule."

     NERV France began with a complaint, "The concentration on toadying up to the Americans does not assist the Agenda.  The resources you used, could have better been applied in other ways."

     Fuyutsuki noticed that even Kehl was uncomfortable with the assumption that the French Unit should be fighting alongside the others.  "Does France intend to make up the vast monetary and industrial resources lost if the Americans withhold theirs?" he asked, now watching NERV France squirm.  "I believe, we cannot yet ignore political realities."

     Fuyutsuki was dragging as he left the conference room after the images of SEELE faded.  "I see why you hate those meetings."  He told Gendo when he saw his friend waiting.

     Gendo nodded, "No complaints about you replacing me at the meeting."

     "It never came up," Fuyutsuki said, concerned, "That's odd."

     Gendo nodded, "I think I'll let you take the next few meetings.  It is necessary that they don't get the idea they can snap their fingers and we must jump."  He started walking, Fuyutsuki fell in behind him, "We still have to answer to them, but let them learn there are other powers, and calls on our time."

     Fuyutsuki nodded his agreement, he was considering why none of them had commented on Gendo's absence, normally they bawled like petulant children when things didn't go exactly their way.  It worried him.

     "Are you heading home?" Nabiki asked as she entered the locker bay and changed into her outside shoes.

     "No," Jeff replied, "A quick test with Unit 02, and then I have a few things to pick up.  If I have to stay with Dr. Akagi, there are a few elements I have to take care of."

     "Like what?" Nabiki asked, she was intrigued.

     "Oh, that would hardly be fair," Jeff said, "And it would spoil the surprise."

     "I could follow you," Nabiki retorted.

     "And spend time away from . . . " he sighed and said dreamily, "Ranma-kun?" Jeff continued, "I've seen the way you look at him, and we have our agreement.  I can guess which way you'll choose."  Jeff grinned at her as he walked off.

     Nabiki fumed, he was right.  She was more interested in being alone with Ranma for a few hours, than solving the mystery of the new boy.

     Ranko watched the fight from a tree.  He'd gotten splashed again, and was hiding from Toji when she saw Raccoon, as he was leaving the school, confronted by six of the `school mafia` that Nabiki had been tangling with lately.  She'd been torn between helping her fellow pilot, and hiding from Toji.  In moments it was obvious, Raccoon hadn't needed any help.  There was only one word Ranko could have for the fight she'd just witnessed.

     Pathetic, I could have beaten all of them together.  The `mafia` had sent five bruisers to `explain` to Raccoon.  Boys picked for their physical size.  Most were as big as Seniors from High School, and that made them very intimidating to most of the other students.  Except Raccoon was as tall as them.  With sizes equal, it came down to skill, and dirty tricks.  Although Raccoon was no great shakes as a fighter from Ranko's point of view, he'd surprised the others and kept the pressure on.  He'd won more by bluff and inferior opponents, than any real skill on his part.

     Have to admit the trick with the cane and coat was neat, Ranko considered.

     Raccoon had knocked the wind out of two, dropped his coat and cane on them, they now acted as if they were trapped under a tremendous weight, gasping and struggling.

     And the trick with the tie, she grudgingly appreciated that one.

     One of the boys had grabbed Raccoon's tie, the reason Ranma never wore one.  The knot had come undone in the boy's hand, leaving him with a piece of cloth, and an angry Raccoon.

     That trick I have to learn.

     He'd been ridiculed for not wearing a tie at more formal occasions, Raccoon was in formals everywhere, and it didn't seem to hamper his fighting, poor as it was.

     Ranko strained her ears to listen, Raccoon was talking to some of the fallen opponents.

     "Listen, I need to get your attention."  Raccoon stepped down on the leg, just above the knee, of the leader `trapped` under his cane, he kicked him full force below the knee.

     Ranko cringed as the boy screamed.  That was a dislocation or a broken leg, Ranko was considering intervening on the other side when Raccoon started talking again.

     "Tendo-san and I will be willing to accept the surrender of your leaders, and are willing to accept some of you into our organization.  I am willing, and able, to continue to deliver lessons like this, again and again, the choice is entirely yours.  And before you go crying to the authorities, I have two witnesses that you attacked me, Saotome Ranko and Suzuhara Toji, who are both more credible than you."

     Toji's around here! Ranko looked around desperately, wondering if she'd been seen by the lovesick teen-ager.  He hated being pawed and drooled over by half the male population of the school, he hated being silent when the other guys related their fantasies about Ranko to each other, around him.  She spotted Toji, staring at the spectacle, as shocked and stunned by the violence as Ranko herself was.

     "If you consider that I may be the worst fighter among the pilots," Raccoon told the group, who were trying to stand despite their injuries.

     Nope, pal, Shinji's worse, Ranko thought disgustedly, You ain't even top of the bottom.

     "Tendo or the Saotomes will take care of business even more effectively.  Now, go."  Raccoon told them.

     "What about me?" the boy trapped under Raccoon's coat shouted desperately.

     "You and I are going to have a heart-to-heart discussion."  Raccoon stood over the fallen boy.

     Wimp, that coat can't weigh more the 20 kilos, even if it was solid metal, even with all the junk Raccoon carries in it.  Ranko watched Toji and Raccoon.  Toji seemed eager to watch, he'd beaten up Shinji the first chance he had, Nabiki had beaten him up in response.  By the look on Toji's face, Raccoon was going to escape un`tested`.

     "Why did you join them?  They only started adding people after Saotome-san put their top 15 fighters in the hospital, you knew you'd be facing him eventually.  Are you that brave, or that stupid?  I can't beat Saotome, either of them."

     Got that right, Ranko thought, At least he knows who the best is.

     "I needed money," the boy called.  Raccoon picked up his coat, the boy stood up suddenly.

     "Then if you can use your brains, as well as your fists, Tendo-san and I may have a job for you.  Your first test of your brains, is to go over, and bring Suzuhara-san over here, you may not touch or speak to him in any threatening way.  Anything else is up to you, let's see if you have what we need."

     Ranko watched the other boy run towards Toji, glancing over his back at Raccoon, Ranko thought it was 50-50 he'd simply run around the corner and keep running, rather than stop and return with Suzuhara.  A quick conversation between the two, while Raccoon walked over to the tree Ranko was hiding in.

     Shit!  Go 'way, shoo, damn.  Ranko tried to catch Raccoon's attention, and send him away, Raccoon either wouldn't or didn't notice.  Ranko retreated deeper in the foliage.

     Toji and the other boy walked over to Raccoon.  "You wanted to see me."  Toji puffed himself up, glanced at the other boy, "He says it's important."

     "It is.  I trust I don't need to prove my prowess in fighting.  The truth is I can't fight tournament-style, like Ranma and Ranko-san can, I can only wound, cripple, or kill my opponents."  He paused to let that sink in, "There will be no further `testing` or `disciplining` of the pilots.  Anyone who is foolish enough to try, will face me, one of the Saotomes, Tendo-san," he paused again, "Or Ayanami-san.  Any problems or complaints will be brought with all dispatch to Tendo-san or myself.  Is that clear?"

     Toji nodded, started to say something.

     "I know," Raccoon interrupted, held up his hands, "Leaving it to us means we'll go easy on them.  Believe me, any of us who step out of line, will wish the rest of the students were taking care of things.  Being above the ordinary means being held to a higher standard."  Raccoon suddenly leaned forward, catching the collar of Toji's jacket, lifting him off the ground, one-handed, "That means your comments about Pilot Asuka Soryu Langley stay comments . . . you don't want to know about the 'or else.' Are we understanding each other?"

     "Yes, yes, Davis-san, I understand."  Toji squeaked as his feet dangled.

     "Very well."  Raccoon set Toji back on his feet, "Please inform the appropriate groups and cliques within the school.  I am trusting you with this assignment, carry it out, and I can promise other jobs, and my gratitude.  Tendo-san and I are assembling our organization, I can promise certain benefits.  Perhaps some danger and adventures, if that's your taste.  Young man, Seisuke-san, you may now go.  Suzuhara-san has something private to hear."

     The boy nodded and ran off, glad he had escaped the beating his comrades, his ex-comrades, had received.

     "Toji, may I call you Toji?  Toji, leave - Ranko - alone, she isn't my girl, but I know enough about girls to know that unless they are very interested, they don't poach on another girl's territory.  As far as Ranko is concerned, you, are the Class President's territory.  And the more you irritate her, the more you distance yourself from Ranko."

     "You want her for yourself," Toji growled.

     "No, I'm merely the college student, trying to impart his hard-earned wisdom.  Ranko will tolerate your presence and actions, then she'll pound you into scrap, literally.  And there's nothing you can do to change that."

     "Is that an order or a threat?" Toji asked, squared his shoulders.

     "No, I'll let Ranma and Ranko fight their own battles."

     "Ranma and Ranko?" Toji asked, his confidence vanished.

     Raccoon sighed, "Saotome, similar appearances, the same taste in clothes, both are EVA pilots, do the math.  Only Ranma is that willfully stupid."

     Ranko wanted to confront Raccoon for that, but she did not want to confront Toji as a girl when she did.

     "Brother and sister?" Toji asked.

     "From twins to cousins, I haven't been able to narrow it down.  Tendo-san and Langley keep telling me they're the same person, because I've never seen both of them at once.  But that's just a joke I suspect the three girls are playing on me."

     Toji chuckled at that.

     "As I said, she's not interested in you, I'm just her friend, she's not interested in Shinji-kun.  Maybe she's so disgusted by everyone fantasizing about her, she doesn't want anything to do with any schoolboys."

     "I'll prove my love to her," Toji said.

     Raccoon sighed again, "Your funeral.  I'll try to keep her from peeing in your ashes.  Good day to you, sir."  He tipped his hat.

     Ranko watched Toji run off.

     "Okay, Ranko-san, he's gone.  And you can't say I didn't try."

     Ranko landed next to him, Raccoon glanced at her, shook his head.

     "How'd you see me?" Ranko asked.

     "Red hair, red shirt, in a green tree.  Why not use flares?  You need to learn more about camouflage, if you're going to keep hiding."

     "Do you have any hot water?" Ranko asked.

     Raccoon sighed, looked at the redhead, "Look, I apologized to Tendo-san.  How long do I pay for one stupid joke?" Raccoon marched off, Ranko had to run to keep up.

     "It's not a joke," Ranko told him, "It's embarrassing."

     "You're a pretty girl.  A little over developed for a fourteen-year-old, but so is Langley.  You'll grow into it.  Look at me, I'm going to have to.  I'm the tallest pilot at 5' 7", or 170 centimeters, I'm as tall as or taller than Captain Katsuragi and Ritsuko-sensei.  But do you know who the lightest pilot is?"

     Ranko shook her head.

     "Me, I'm three kilos lighter than Ayanami-san, basically I'm all skin and bones.  I'm taller and lighter than Katsuragi, Langley or Tendo-san, and they hate that.  If I grow up the way my father and uncle William did, I'll be six foot something and 80 to 120 kilos.  Believe me, I've got a long way to go.  You just developed early, it happens."

     "That's not what I mean," Ranko shot back.

     "Well, I guess Tendo-san and Ritsuko-sensei can help you pick out some under garments, keep you from bouncing and showing so much.  It'll be more comfortable.  Your, Ranma, would be useless for that.  Ask the other women, I'll ask them for you if you like."

     "That's not it either!" Ranko shouted.

     "Then I can't help you.  Should I walk you home?" Raccoon asked.

     "I live at your apartment," Ranko said with exasperation.

     "Yes, of course."  Raccoon looked like he had an idea, then looked angry, "Darn, that would have worked too."


     "Well, if you really are Ranma, at least you all keep telling me you are, then I could have told Toji we're sleeping together.  After all, Ranma and I sleep in the same room, and if you and he are the same person, then we're sleeping in the same room.  We'd just have to tell them we aren't having relations.  That would have worked too."

     Ranma remembered his nightmare, and was too shocked at the implications to respond, or even move, as Raccoon headed away from the apartment.

     Ranma entered the apartment as a boy, Raccoon's suggestions were still bothering him.  He was a guy, he didn't wear girly clothes, he didn't sleep with other . . . well he did sleep with them, but he didn't have sex with them.  The dream of Ranko seducing Raccoon came back, Ranma shivered again.

     "You're late," Nabiki told him, "Were you out on a date."  She was seated at the dining room table, working on her homework.

     "I got splashed and had to dodge Toji" he replied, entered the kitchen, helped himself to a snack out of the refrigerator.

     "He must have caught you," Nabiki said, "Considering how nervous you are.  Just one kiss shook you so much."  She sighed, "It couldn't have been as romantic and passionate as Raccoon's first kiss."

     Ranma blanched at that, Nabiki laughed.

     "Don't worry, you'll find a true love who just makes you all warm inside," Nabiki told him, "Home and family and lots of kids running all over the house.  Just think of all the young students, a whole tribe of little Ranmas."

     A HUGE sweatdrop formed on Ranma's brow.

     "Oh, I forgot.  You aren't interested in girls.  It must be Ranko, has she found someone who makes her heart go pitter-patter?  Some brave knight to save her from mean ole' Ranma?"

     Ranma was nearly shaking, with fear and rage.  Nabiki's teasing was a little too close to the truth and his nightmares.  He stroked his stomach, Would I kill an innocent to get my manhood back?  Would I let a guy . . . do that to me? "No, I just watched Raccoon fight, he's real bad."

     "Oh," Nabiki enthused, "Watching your brave knight and wanting to give him a token as he goes into battle for your honor."  She sighed again, laid her head on the table, "Why can't I have a romantic man like that after me.  Courtly love to the girl he knows he can never have.  It's just sooo romantic."

     Ranma couldn't figure out if he should be revolted or terrified, "I'm a GUY!"

     "But you aren't interested in girls.  Maybe you're interested in other guys, there's nothing to be ashamed of, you just indulge yourself as Ranko, and nobody has to know.  I can keep a secret, for a fee I can tell you his favorite foods, his favorite perfume, just the right clothes to wear."

     "I don't date guys, either!" Ranma shouted at her.  Realized as she smiled, she'd just been trying to get under his skin.  I'll turn the tables on her! "Just 'cause he likes Ranko better than you, I bet he never offered to buy you underwear!" From her expression, he realized what a mistake he'd made.

     "Ooo!  Frilly things with lace and silk?!" Nabiki leaned forward, "I am sooo very jealous.  I'm sure he suggested it in a proper manner.  You know Saotome, you should wear something in your girl form.  It would cut down on the interest and if you don't you might hurt yourself."

     Ranma shivered at the suggestion and what Nabiki's accuracy implied, "It's not like that!" he shouted back.

     Nabiki patted his hand, "I know, he was a perfect gentleman about it, when all you wanted was for him to sweep you up in his arms."  She sniffed, "I know the heartbreak of a man you love never seeing you.  It's so sentimental, and so sad."

     "It's nothing like that I'd never . . . " He fell silent.

     "Something did happen, didn't it?" Nabiki asked.  "Come on, out with it Saotome.  Or Toji gets a free show, and you'll be dodging him as Ranma and Ranko."

     "It was just a dream!" Ranma countered angrily.

     "The dream where you nearly broke Jeff's nose, the same one where you nearly took my head off?" Nabiki said angrily.  "That wasn't 'just a dream', you could have killed or crippled both of us."

     "I don't want to talk about it."  Ranma got up to leave the table.

     Nabiki blocked his way, "I already know your 'I don't hit girls' pledge went out the window that night.  Shaddup!" she shouted as he tried to protest, "So you are going to tell me.  Then we are going to find an answer, if I have to roast you and Roku-kun over hot coals, I'll get an answer.  Now, SIT DOWN!"

     Ranma felt himself drop into the chair, almost against his will.

     "I apologize for teasing you," she said formally, "Now spill it!"

     Ranma reluctantly told her about the dream, Ranko seducing Raccoon to keep Ranma suppressed, for years.  He was grateful Nabiki kept her 'Ice Princess' expression and persona in place the whole time, he still felt she was boring into his personal feelings a little too much.  He wasn't sure how much blackmail material he was providing her with.

     When he'd finished, Nabiki sat back in her chair and considered.  Any move he made to get up netted him an angry glare from her, he'd quickly sit back down.

     "First, I don't think he'd ever do that.  Second, I don't think Ranko would ever do that," Nabiki said quietly.

     "There is no Ranko!" Ranma insisted, "I'm a guy!"

     "And she's definitely a girl," Nabiki coldly replied, "You haven't come to grips with that.  For a Martial Artist not to understand yin and yang is pathetic.  Everyone has male and female characteristics, your denial of that makes your female half stronger because of that suppression.  The dream might be a warning."

     "I'm a guy, I don't want to be a girl.  EVER!"

     "You don't have that choice," Nabiki replied, "Deal with that and the nightmares, might, go away."

     "This is pointless," Ranma left, ignoring Nabiki's glare.  He closed the door to his bedroom and lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling.  That can't be the answer.

     Raccoon entered the apartment with a huge, long parcel under his arm, a parcel that clanked.  He set it down long enough to remove his boots, and change into inside shoes.  The noise drew Ranma out of the bedroom and his own thoughts.

     "If you were bringing home all this," Ranma indicated the parcel, "You could have asked one of us to help."

     Raccoon shrugged, "If I had known what I was looking for, I would have asked for help.  I wasn't aware that, what I was looking for, didn't exist."

     "So what did you get?" Nabiki asked.

     "A few things."  He extracted a package of bottles of colored liquids, "To deal with some of the arguments that come up."  He exposed a collection of heavy pipes.  "And a bunk bed."

     "Out of pipes?" Ranma said in disbelief.

     "I told you."  Raccoon hefted the cluster of pipes, "You need to learn a salable skill.  Like thinking.  Stand clear."

     Ranma grimaced at that as he watched the other boy weave through the living room and walk into the bedroom.  Raccoon touched nothing with the unwieldy parcel.

     "See what I mean," Ranma commented, "He doesn't move normally."

     Nabiki agreed, and left to watch.  Ranma could careless about what Raccoon was doing, although he was suspicious of the attention Nabiki was paying to him.

     For over an hour Ranma heard Raccoon assembling, tightening and he could smell the soldering.  Ranma was disgusted by Nabiki's fascination as the collection of plumbing changed into two shelves and a framework.  The shelves were heavily cross braced, they slipped into the frame, and the structure took on form and function.

     "Saotome-san, I need to show this to you," Raccoon called to Ranma.

     Ranma meandered in, he stared at the odd structure.  "What, what is that?"

     "A bunk bed.  You put your futon here."  He indicated the lower shelf, "And when you want to do your practices."  He grabbed the bunk and folded it up, then back and out of the way, "That will get it up and out of your way, and you don't have to roll up your futon every morning, just fold it out of the way."

     "Uh, that's, uh, clever," Ranma said.

     Nabiki slapped him on the back of the head, "Say 'Thank you,' dummy."

     "I wasn't expecting thanks.  Not from him, anyway," Raccoon commented.  He walked smiling, past a fuming Ranma.

     Nabiki remembered there were few insults greater than not acknowledging a debt, and if Davis believed Ranma wouldn't acknowledge his debts, Whoo boy, Ranma you were looking for a fight.  Now you've got one.  She paused, I'll have to find out how he feels about Ranko, since 'They're not the same person.' Maybe talk to him about the dream, get him to train Ranma.  She sighed, Yeah, that will happen.  Then she considered an alternative, and smiled.
     Raccoon prepared dinner, the recently-made chart made it his job tonight.  Dr. Akagi was mildly shocked at the added furniture in her home.  Raccoon had shown her how the entire assembly could be folded up and set against the wall, and the boards that dispersed the weight over a larger area.  Ranma was more interested in supper.  Whatever Raccoon was cooking, it did smell good.

     I can cook that well, Ranma thought, Maybe better.  It depressed him that cooking was a girl's skill, and he was so good at it.  It was embarrassing, Why aren't Shinji and Raccoon embarrassed by that?  Probably 'cause they ain't real guys.  Like you?  Ranma ignored that thought.

     "Well, it's my first attempt at real Japanese cooking, as opposed to the American interpretations."  Raccoon set the dishes on the table, "But I think it's edible."  He set a covered dish in front of each person.

     "Now Saotome-san, I have watched you steal food right off my plate, since San Francisco.  I don't know if you - "

     "I don't steal food!" Ranma retorted.

     Ritsuko and Nabiki exchanged smiles, they had both discussed this, and Ranma had denied it every time.  I don't steal food, or anything else, Ranma thought.

     "Okay, you don't believe you do it."  Raccoon lifted the cover on his dish.  The rice was deep yellow.

     Nabiki uncovered her red rice, Ritsuko green rice.  Ranma uncovered his quickly, it was white.  He looked at the others.

     "I'll bet you six months of cleaning the bathroom, against six months of any chore you want," Raccoon said.

     "Bathroom cleaning is good," Ranma replied, he hated cleaning the whole bathroom.

     "Okay, the bet is, that your tongue will be brown, at the end of the meal, mine will be yellow, Tendo-san's red, Akagi-sensei's green.  It's only food coloring, and should be all gone by tomorrow morning.  Is it a bet?"

     "You'll trick me," Ranma retorted.

     "Okay, the bet is canceled, but I still want all four of us to look at your tongue after dinner.  That isn't negotiable, you don't agree, you don't eat.  I'm sick of having my food stolen."

     "I didn't steal it!" Ranma shouted back.

     "I have some blue food coloring, I could add it to your rice and the color will tell, won't it?" Raccoon asked.

     "I'm all for it," Nabiki added.

     "And I."  Ritsuko pronounced sentence.

     "You don't think - "

     "Why don't we find out for certain," Nabiki said, "Itadakemasu."  And began digging in.

     Raccoon said a simple prayer and began.  Ranma exchanged glances with Ritsuko.

     Ranma felt put upon as he ate, he was more disturbed by the growing smiles on all three of his dinner companions as he ate.

     "I'm done."  Ranma stood up, and headed for his room.

     "Two bit's says he looks in the mirror," he heard Raccoon say.

     I'll show them! Ranma entered the bathroom.

     "What odds?" Nabiki replied.  Ranma's squawk interrupted any reply.

     Ranma ran back, stuck out his brown tongue.  Yellow, red and green tongues answered him.  He was thunderstruck.

     "Members of the jury, I rest my case," Raccoon told the others, "I would like some help in determining sentence."

     "I knew he was doing it," Ritsuko said, "I almost couldn't see him moving so fast."

     "You don't - " Ranma protested.

     "We've got proof Saotome-san," Raccoon cut him off.

     "Let's give him the benefit of the doubt," Nabiki said, "Let's assume, he doesn't believe he's doing, what he's doing."

     "That's almost worse," Ranma said.

     "We could build glass partitions around him when we eat," Raccoon suggested, earning him angry look from both women.  "Okay, okay, I'm sorry.  That still leaves us with the problem.  How do you untrain a, what is it, a reflex?"

     "Good enough explanation," Ritsuko said.

     "Hey, I'm right here!" Ranma protested.

     "Then sit down," Nabiki told him as she stood and walked to the nearest curio case.

     Ranma noticed both Raccoon and Ritsuko pulled their dinners a little ways away from him.  He was about to comment on that when the cat landed right in front of him, he instantly drew back.  He saw Nabiki's hand turn the cat statuary to stare at him, she set another down.

     "We don't build a solid wall," she began alternating tall and short cat statues and knickknacks, "Like the teeth of a castle."

     "A crenelated battlement," Raccoon said, "It also deals with his fear of cats."

     "Well, I noticed he hasn't touched them since he's been here, and he reacted to Asuka's comments," Nabiki replied.

     Ranma was sick of being discussed as if he wasn't there, "I'm not afraid of -" He nearly jumped out of his skin as Nabiki set a particularly realistic statue right in front of him, he reeled back.

     "You can work on two problems at once, stealing food and your phobia of cats."  Nabiki smiled at him as she completed the barrier.

     Ranma looked to Ritsuko, she was too busy laughing to help him.

     Ranma decided to go upstairs to the roof to practice, At least there's something I can always do.

     Eyes tracked the target in the darkness.  Ikari's purge had eliminated the cultists.  It had taken time for them to build up again.  He wondered if this creature was once a NERV employee, or one of Asuka or Shinji's schoolmates.  The rat-like creature with the near-human face and forearms.

     He'd killed them before, but he couldn't figure out how they'd gotten into Misato's apartment.  He watched it pass Misato's room, then Asuka's, trying to enter Shinji's.

     He was amazed when it squeezed under the door.  He hadn't known they could get through such a small gap.  He hurried down the hall silently, he wanted to be close enough to defend Shinji, if it did more than spy on him.

     It didn't.  He retreated out of sight as the creature squeezed back under the door.  Again it bypassed the girls' rooms.  He watched it move through the living room.  To the corner of the dining room where it was separated from the kitchen by the counter.

     Before it could reach the tiny hole, he struck without mercy.  He had what he needed, he glanced down at the tiny corpse, then at Misato's room.  Despite her job, she didn't need to encounter one of these things, didn't need to know about the realities of the real world she lived in.  Yet.  He glanced at Asuka's and Shinji's closed doors.  He liked the kids, despite what a problem they posed for him, he just wished they didn't live with Misato.  They didn't need to know either, not yet.

     He picked up the corpse, a moment later it slid down his gullet.  As bad as it was, it wasn't the worst thing he'd eaten here.

     Now, how do I get the others to investigate this little hole? the answer was obvious, the turned to the little refrigerator and started forward.

Butting Heads

     "Nabiki we're almost ready to go," Jeff called to me from the kitchen.  I opened the door and peered out, Ranma watched Jeff fill the thermos with scorching, hot tea.  "What's that for?" our Martial Artist asked.

     Oh no, I thought, Not another argument, not this early.  I hurriedly finished dressing, watched to see if, no when, I'd have to intervene.

     "For drinking," Jeff replied, slipped the thermos into his pack, "And in case you have an accident.  Besides, Ranko asked me to."

     "Thanks, I, wait, you still don't believe it, do you?"

     Jeff faced Ranma, arms akimbo, "Look Saotome-san, I can appreciate, and play along with a joke as well as anyone.  Supposedly you turn into a girl with cold water, supposedly you are an absolute magnet for cold water.  That according to the good Doctor, and Asuka Langley, our two most unimpeachable sources.  The fact that Tendo-san and Ayanami-san are both silent on the situation, I should discount and assume they're the ones playing the joke.  Ayanami-san wouldn't do that, and Tendo-san's humor is more subtle, Ranko-san is going along, I guess, to be a good sport.  Crude practical jokes are your's and Langley's style, Saotome-san."  Jeff walked to the entryway, changed into his outside boots.

     "What are you saying?  I'm lying about this?" Ranma was getting angry.

     I strolled out of my and Doctor Akagi's room.  Normally I enjoyed watching Ranma fight, but not against Jeff.  Jeff took fighting far more seriously than Ranma, too seriously.  "Hey!  No murdering each other in the house, you break it you bought it."

     "I was just leaving."  Jeff left, typically, Ranma wasn't ready to go just yet.

     "Hey wait up!" Ranma scrambled for his homework and lunch.  I sighed, collected my own, I'm going to have to play referee again.

     It would be easier if Ranma actually changed once in front of Jeff, but circumstances kept preventing it.

     "And how weird is that," I considered, In Nerima, Ranma never went a day without changing several times.  Here, he can go for days without changing, unless he specifically wants to.  Another mystery of this place.

     Ranma was walking on the fence, still arguing with Jeff, who was doing his level best to ignore the martial artist.

     "It's not my fault you haven't seen it.  Dr. Akagi has volunteered to douse me plenty of times, it happens all the time when I bathe.  If you weren't so prissy about bathing in private, you would have seen."

     I could almost hear Jeff's teeth grinding, one more Ranma `foot-in-mouth` comment, and Jeff would probably air-express him to Saipan.  The American was very strict about aspects of his privacy, and wrongly assumed the rest of us felt the same way.  Asuka's voice, and the sight of her dragging Shinji behind her, did not increase the chances I'd be able to defuse the situation.

     "What are you two arguing about now?" Asuka let go of Shinji once she had caught up to the others, "Stupid penguin going crazy over a mouse hole?  At least you don't have to deal with that."

     "Ranma's mad that Jeff's carrying a thermos of hot tea, in case he has an accident," I told her, knowing whatever was said, would be turned into an insult.

     "Oh, Ranko and Raccoon sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g."  Asuka taunted them.

     Well, if both of them turn on her, it might not be so bad.  I checked to make sure I had Jeff's camera in a secure place, He doesn't seem to mind me burrowing it.  Pictures of that fight would be worth a lot.  Visions of easy yen filled my head for an instant.

     Jeff didn't rise to the bait, but he did start walking a lot faster.  Ranma turned up his nose at Asuka's suggestion.  Jeff was around the corner and out of sight when Ranma put a foot wrong, and tumbled into the drainage ditch.  Ranko sputtered in fury.

     "Now I'm going to be late!" she shook herself off.

     "Roku-kun has that thermos," Shinji suggested, "You could catch up to him and ask for it."

     "No!" Ranko shouted, "I won't ask that smug jerk for anything!"

     "Baka."  Asuka muttered, this time, I and Shinji thought it was an understatement.

     The school yard was, as expected, when Ranko walked in.  Most of the girls wanted to kill her on sight, and most of the boys started closing in.  Rei and Jeff moved in, to cut us a hole to let us get away, Asuka and Shinji reluctantly moved up to reinforce them.  Somewhere in the jostling, Ranko found herself in possession of Jeff's thermos.  I caught Ranko, and made it inside while Asuka, Rei and Jeff held off the mob, and Shinji closed the door behind us.  This is getting to be a regular thing, I thought, and wondered how they'd choreographed the maneuver that well, and that quickly.

     Ranko quickly found a bathroom, and became Ranma again.

     "Funny," I teased, "He doesn't seem to have any trouble helping you when you're in trouble.  Or maybe he has a crush on Ranko."

     Ranma shuddered.

     "He's just waiting for the right time, you two alone together, you never expecting a little cold water.  After all, he proclaims he doesn't believe in the curse, right.  And poor little Ranko, mean ole' Jeff beat Ranma in dreams, what could sweet little Ranko do against him?  Or maybe he'd seduce you."  I enjoyed watching Ranma squirm, remembering his dream.  It was a safe image to plant in his mind.  Frankly the possibility Jeff acting in that manner, were in the same order as the entire Mythos surrendering and offering terms and reparations.  But Ranma dealt with his fears badly, and they did share a bedroom.

     In class, Jeff was concentrating on some secret project or other, oblivious to the world, until called on, then it seemed he'd been paying attention.  Ranma kept throwing the other boy dirty looks, he hated being in anyone's debt.  Asuka and Hikari were having fun spreading salacious rumors about Ranko, which Toji and Kensuke could just barely overhear, and it had them salivating over the possibilities and what they speculated the girls had said.  Rei seemed completely oblivious to all that was going on around her, although I had learned: the strange girl was listening closely, cataloging who said what to whom, and how it changed with the retelling, and could recount it with perfect precision.

     A real collection, give them some training and they'd have the Nerima crew chasing their tails in a few days, I considered.

     "Boss, is there a problem?" Hiroko asked me.

     "Just my two roommates are getting ready to kill each other," I admitted, "I haven't decided if I should let them, or not."

     "Well, get plenty of pictures," she teased.  I frowned at her, she smiled back.

     I almost preferred it when I was the only one in the district with any brains, I mourned my one-time supremacy of discernment.

     Class dragged on, until lunch.  Then pandemonium broke out, as the students unpacked their lunches, and headed out to eat them, or do a little trading.  I'd wisely made our lunch preparation schedule public.  It did my ego a little damage that Ranma's and Jeff's cooking made for such enthusiastic trading.  Ranma always participated, mainly to increase the amount of food, regardless of the quality.  Jeff was outside, and had seated himself near Rei.  He said nothing, merely played chess against himself while he ate.

     "What's that baka doing with Wondergirl?" Asuka asked no one in particular.  "I tried to make friends with her the first day.  'I'll be friends if I'm ordered to.' Stupid robot."

     "Misato's cooking today?" I asked innocently.  Asuka's answering grimace told her the story, she'd sold her entire lunch for half of Ranma's.  The expression on Ranma's face told me that Misato's cooking was running true to form.

     "Maybe he trying to do . . . " I shut my mouth quickly, I was going to say 'Something you can't.' But I stopped myself.  If I had, then Asuka would interject herself, and we'd never get Rei out of her shell.  Something both of us, independently, thought extremely important.

     "Something to what?" Asuka impatiently demanded.

     I smiled mischievously at her anger, "Something to make you mad.  It seems to be working."

     Asuka stomped off.

     I smiled again, a predator's smile.  I was wrong, some of these people are as easy marks as the Nerima crew had been, then I chided myself, You should be working to bring them together, strengthen them.  It's not like I need the money here.  After all, I have my salary, if I want more all I have to do is get Mr.  Davis to marry me.  What's divorce like here and now?

     Lunch finished, and the next class was physical education, our first class that left the classroom.  I had hoped the early trouble had blown over, while the girls were swimming, the boys were playing soccer.  I carelessly didn't catch that Ranma and Jeff were on opposing teams, until the match was half over.  Jeff was simply no good at the game.  So Ranma kept passing him the ball, rushing in, body checking him, and racing off again with the ball.  Or bouncing the ball off him, to pass to another player.  Shinji was on the sidelines, with Ranma on his team, most of the others never got any time with the ball, whether they were on the field or not.  Shinji, Toji and Kensuke were critiquing the battle.

     Tempers were running a lot hotter when the period ended.  Strangely, Rei had also been carefully watching the goings on.

     "If a fight starts, who'll win?" I asked the albino girl.

     "Neither, we will all lose."  She turned away, and headed for the showers.  Again I had to agree, Ranma wanted a rematch after his dream defeat, which only he seemed to talk about, Jeff hadn't even acknowledged that it happened.  So, Jeff seemed to take an especial pleasure in ignoring all of Ranma's provocations.

     Literature class was the last, and worst, of the day.  All the Children were again in the same classroom, while the teacher droned on about haiku versus iambic pentameter.  I wished I could ignore the teacher and do something else, but he invariably called on anyone not paying attention, except Asuka and Jeff, who seemed to know the subject better than he did.

     They're college students, of course they know the subject, I reminded myself as I struggled to stay awake, Why can't we drop this idiot on the Angels, if he didn't kill them from boredom, we wouldn't have to deal with him again.

     But I was concerned, several of my `associates`, had already been taking bets on the possibility of a fight today, and the winner, despite my assurances that no fight would occur, today or in the near future.  Many had seen Ranma fight on the school grounds and after school.  Jeff's withdrawal aboard the carrier, and all of us dealing with the school's `mafia`, were regarded as apocryphal, and only I saw the battle in San Francisco.  Although Asuka and Rei seemed to regard a fight between them as a bad idea, the only thing those two completely agreed about.  And how did they know that? I wondered.

     So the betting heavily favored Ranma, I secretly wished they would come to blows, or face some opponent in hand-to-hand together, not only would it net me a fair pile of yen, it would relieve the tension building up between the roommates, and it would make it abundantly clear why `Roku-kun` didn't fight other kids.

     Classes ended, none of the pilots had cleanup duty, so we headed home.  Rei to her apartment, Asuka and Shinji to Misato's.  From a safe distance, I watched the two boys march along, Ranma seemed content to walk along the tops of the fences, matching whatever pace Jeff set.  Jeff carried his walking stick against his arm, giving the impression of a switchblade knife.

     "You two had better get it out of your systems," I shouted to them, "Or Asuka and I will beat up both of you."

     "I just want my thermos back."  Jeff kept walking.

     Ranma faltered for a second, then regained his balance.

     Damn, I should have pushed him, that would have solved a lot of problems, I lamented a lost chance.  "You gave it to Ranko, why didn't you get it back from her?" That earned me a dark look from Ranma.

     "You are always telling me Ranma IS Ranko," Jeff replied evenly, "Why doesn't he have it then?"

     I looked at Ranma, who shrugged.

     Baka, he forgot it!  He must have left it in the girls' bathroom.  I realized too late, Jeff tried to play along and it cost him.  That's going to improve this a whole lot.  "He'll pay you back."

     "No need, I shouldn't have expected civilized behavior."  Jeff's mild tone tore it.

     Ranma leapt in front of the other boy, "What the hell is that supposed to mean!?" he was clenching and unclenching his fists.

     I hurried forward, to break up the fight.  I was better than Davis, and Ranma wouldn't hit me.

     "It means, I think you are either totally thoughtless, or intentionally cruel.  Since I can't positively decide which, I've kept silent.  Let me clue you in Saotome-san, I don't dislike you.  I.  Hate.  You."  Jeff's voice betrayed no emotion, none at all, he might as well have been reading a speech, badly, "I would like nothing better than to see you slowly boiled alive, with your life's blood oozing out of every orifice and opening.  Unfortunately, current circumstances preclude me that pleasure.  Since you are the higher rated pilot, it falls to me to protect you, which I have done, and will continue to do.  However, when the last `Angel` falls, and that has been reliably confirmed, I would suggest you consider moving, to another planet."

     "You think you're that tough?" Ranma was ready for a fight, cracking his knuckles and assuming a stance.

     "Puh-leaze, you claim to be this super-skilled martial artist, who can read an opponent's moves before he makes them, correct."

     "I can," Ranma retorted, "Come on and try me."

     "Then that answers my question.  Those stupid things you say and do, the ones that infuriate all the people around you.  Since you are aware of how angry they get, you must keep doing it on purpose.  That makes you a cockroach, you don't fistfight cockroaches, that's what DDT is for."  Jeff stepped to one side, and continued walking.

     "It makes sense, what he says," I told Ranma as I hurried to his side, he stared at me in hurt disbelief, "You get everyone riled up, and rather than take the warning, you set everyone off.  It's no wonder Asuka wants to beat you up."  I walked past him.

     "You can't believe that!" Ranma ran after me, "You can't believe I would . . . "

     "You do it to him and Shinji, all the time," I retorted angrily, The boy has got to learn, "I saw the soccer game.  You had that ball under total control all the time."

     "Well maybe I - "

     "And that thermos, on the slim chance that we're right, and he's wrong, he prepared a rescue plan, and gave it to you when you needed it.  You didn't think enough of him, or his efforts, to keep track of it?" I watched him squirm.  "Actually, I do think he's wrong about you."

     "You do?" Ranma brightened.

     "Yeah, martial artists are supposed to be centered.  You're not smart enough to be cruel, so you're just self-centered and stupid."  I turned on my heel and walked away, leaving the stricken Ranma.  I hated doing that, But if Ranma keeps pushing, he was going to get something far different than he bargained for from Rei, Jeff, and Shinji.

     I caught up with Jeff, a few moments later.  "You were pretty hard on him, I don't think he deserved all that."

     "He deserves to be shot."  Jeff kept his voice and expression flat, his eyes straight ahead, "Have you ever met Ranko, sat down and just talked to her?"

     "Well, I - "

     "Right, the curse, so what you and the others are saying is, 'She's just a side-effect, something to be gotten rid of as soon as possible, disposable.' I'm sorry, everybody can be replaced, but nobody is disposable.  Our illustrious Commander, and our den-mother, have Rei brainwashed the same way.  She acts as if there are a dozen people ready to step in, and take her place.  The U.S.  lost two of the three pilots they found, and they quit looking, officially.  The Brits lost six to the EVA they dug up, they quit looking.  The French found only one.  There aren't any records of how many the Germans and Japanese found, but they have five survivors and I know of eleven who didn't make it, from NERV Tokyo alone.  Ranko isn't Ranma, the speech patterns and fighting styles are similar, but so are your's.  Does that mean you're irrelevant too?"

     "I think it's a little different," I began, rather weakly, I honestly hadn't considered this.  Even though it was wrong, it made sense, in an odd way.

     "No.  It isn't.  People either have an intrinsic value, or they don't.  This new EVA technology has the potential to allow duplication of existing humans.  So, if there are a dozen duplicates of Tendo Nabiki in existence, accurate right down to the cellular level, are they people, or spare parts.  Say they can all think and feel and reason, just like the original.  And if you say they're spare parts, your spare parts, to do with as you see fit.  What's to keep someone from saying that a person's race, or faith, or country of origin makes them less than ideally human, and not deserving the protections of the Law and civilization?"

     Jeff stopped, took a breath and stared at me, I could feel the boiling fury under the muted facade, I didn't like him being angry with me or around me.

     "Then what was the war all about?" he calmly asked, "We killed tens of millions over what?  The rulership of Continental Europe, who controls trade with China and southeast Asia?  I expect that kind of reasoning from Ikari-chan, he's Kempeitai, the Japanese Army Secret Police, but Langley grew up a `Volk Hero of the National Socialist Fatherland`, and she doesn't subscribe to it."

     "She doesn't believe anybody is as good as she is," I countered, tried to make it sound like a joke, it didn't work.

     "True.  But that's general arrogance, everybody is equally beneath her," Jeff admitted, "But Ranma does, he treats Ranko with utter revulsion.  And most girls and women with an, oh-so-polite, contempt.  If I could change genders that easily, I'd be investigating, comparing and contrasting the interdependent sides of humanity, the perceptual, emotional and cultural differences, studying what makes up identity and self-image.

     "He acts like the only value he or anybody else has is: how well he can fight, the depth of his voice, and a bit of flesh hanging between his legs.  `Shes` don't count, period."  Jeff paused, staring at me, willing me to understand.

     "I'd, I'd just never thought of it that way before," I stammered, "I've always known that he wanted to be normal."

     "Trust me, nobody is normal, especially among the pilots."  Jeff started walking again, the anger wasn't gone, but it was buried, far deeper, "If that's what he wants, he should quit practicing martial arts, and take up accounting or law.  To join the hordes of government worker bees.  You want a curse, try growing up with an intellectual and emotional age 10 to 15 years ahead of where you should be.  Imagine being an eight-year-old who can look at the world as a twenty-year-old, or a fourteen-year-old who thinks like thirty.  That my dear, is a REAL curse, because there is nothing you can do about it.  Because you either can't convince someone to treat you as you deserve, or if you can, then you are a freak."

     I swallowed and nodded, I'd never seen Jeff so furious, I don't particularly want to see it again, ever.

     I let him walk away, I've got a test with Unit 02, so I couldn't keep playing referee.  I stalked back to where Ranma was waiting.  "You get a replacement!" I hissed at him, poked him in the chest to punctuate my point, "I don't care if you have to walk to Kyoto.  You get one, or he's right: you only talk about honor, you don't really live it.  And do something about your attitude, all you are right now is a bully, and all a bully is, is a coward with a little strength or training.  And the five of us together are a lot stronger than you are.  Imagine the nightmares we could come up with!" I turned and walked away, I hoped it would get him thinking.  From my experience, he only seems to think when planning a stratagem, a way to beat an opponent, I only hope he puts his current dilemma in that context.  Sooner or later he's going to do something that hurts or kills somebody, maybe himself.  I couldn't live with that.


     Ranma stared at the thermos.  It had taken a couple of hours to find one like the one Raccoon had handed Ranko this morning.  Nabiki had insisted, so had Ranma's honor.  Ranma kept running into the fact that he didn't know who he was, but he had a pretty good idea who he wasn't.  One thing Saotome Ranma did, was pay his debts.

     He'd spent a lot of time thinking while he'd been searching.  Now he realized he'd been feeling sorry for himself, 'Everybody's picking on me.' It was wrong, and it was unworthy.

     "They pick on everyone, who picks on them," he admitted as he climbed the stairs to Dr. Akagi's apartment.  What had occurred to him while he was alone, was that since Everett had died, been killed: he'd been running scared.  Martial Arts was the most important thing, almost the only thing, in his life, and it failed him, failed him completely.

     Everett was a good fighter, and they'd killed him in moments.  Ranma knew he might have lasted a bit longer, but they would have killed him too, if he'd stayed to fight.  "And if I'd run away . . . " he said as he opened the door to the apartment, peered inside to see if Raccoon was inside, and still mad at him.  If I'd just run away, I would have condemned the others to death.  Again, he knew who he wasn't.

     Raccoon was nowhere in sight, and Nabiki was taking a compatibility test in Unit 02, so was Shinji.

     He filled the thermos with water, added a couple of ice cubes.  He noticed the trays needed refilling, decided to do it.  Taking some responsibility for the house, No, the home, I live in.

     He resealed the thermos and sat down with it at the dining room table.  He didn't want to do this.

     But without Martial Arts, what am I? he wondered.  He was tired of the uncertainty, tired of the terrible dreams and nightmares, and he was sick to death of the fact he was helpless against these things.  Saotome Ranma was no quitter, but his instinct was to act, not to think, thinking in a fight could get you hurt or beaten.

     "Not thinking can get you killed," he reminded himself, coming back to the conclusions he'd drawn on his walk around Tokyo.  He'd insult Raccoon or Asuka, and he'd be facing both of them, and sometimes Nabiki too.  He'd lost every exchange he'd gotten into, but Raccoon and Nabiki could shut Asuka down with a few words and neither interfered.

     Using a `soft` technique like judo, instead of the `hard` method I've been using.

     The insults were just part of it, since Everett had died, he'd not won a single fight he'd been in, not at insults, not in hand-to-hand, not in dreams.  Raccoon had him completely at his mercy, and the gaijin's honor was the only thing that kept him from paying Ranma back in full for the insults and the beating.  Asuka had been able to insult him and he'd been too unskilled to reply effectively.  He'd beaten Shinji, but that was hardly a victory to be proud of, neither boy had a chance, they'd come to him to be trained.  Rather than welcome them to the Martial Arts than meant so much to him, he'd given them a beating, and everybody knew it.  Ayanami held him in contempt, and he wasn't sure if Tendo liked or hated him, she seemed to bounce from one to the other so often he couldn't tell.

     Ranma had been so desperate for any victory, he'd been pushing Shinji and Raccoon, and even Ayanami to fight him, so he could beat them, so he could feel like a man again.

     The battles against those kids holding Hiroko didn't count.  If Nabiki had attacked, she, Raccoon and Asuka would still have won.  He'd won a few times in the EVAs, beaten those monsters easily.  "But that wasn't fighting," he lamented, "It was more like driving a car, or a bulldozer."  He knew it wasn't the same, getting a machine to do something wasn't the same as doing it himself.

     The other important conclusion he'd drawn, was he could learn the techniques to beat those things.  Asuka seemed to be unafraid of them, Rei obviously wasn't, nor was Raccoon, so the weirdos knew how to deal with them.  Rei couldn't explain anything, And she hates you.  Asuka knew, but considered the rest of the pilots obstacles or trivialities, asking her was just inviting a tirade of insults.

     He unscrewed the top and poured the cap half-full of water, watched the tiny ice chip floating in the water.

     The solution had been staring him in the face, Beating you over the head, you mean, since right after the briefing on the Coral Sea, You just didn't want to face it.  You didn't want to be humiliated again, he remembered, But if only you know you're being humiliated, if only you care.  Isn't winning worth that? he asked himself.

     "I'm dithering," he said, "I already decided to do this."  He got a towel from the linen closet, draping it over his shoulders as he walked back to the dining room table.

     He took a deep breath, You aren't going swimming or taking a punch, you idiot! He relaxed a bit, let the breath out and upended the cap over his head.  Once she was sure the change was complete, she dried off her hair.

     "Okay Mister `I-could-teach-better`!" Ranko said, "Let's see what you can teach!" She marched out of the apartment, determined to defeat all of it, the helpless feeling, the voices that troubled her dreams, all of it.

     She was so focused, she missed Nabiki ducking around a corner, back out of sight, with a huge smile on her face.

     Ranko stopped at the base of the stairs to the roof, "Okay, I'm ready to take on the world.  Where's my target?" Before I lose my nerve, she added.  She headed to the roof to talk to Raccoon.

     She walked across the gravel roof of the apartment.

     "Did you want to practice?" Raccoon asked, as he moved the claymore through a series of motions, "I can leave."

     "No," Ranko told him, "I wanted to talk, if you don't mind."

     "I can talk and work out."  Raccoon began a new series of moves, moving slowly.  Ranko thought it was exercise, training and strengthening the muscles.  Ranko also enjoyed the slow speed because it allowed her to see the nuances of the moves.  She walked over and picked up the other claymore, and began mirroring his movements.

     "The claymore depends on more power than the speed of the Japanese style: rather than stab or slash," Raccoon did what Ranko recognized as some very basic kendo moves, "Aren't appropriate, instead you thrust and chop."

     Ranko almost overbalanced, the blade was longer than she was tall, and the changing center of balance still surprised her.  "Ranma mentioned that he had a dream, you beat him in a fight," Ranko had trouble admitting that, "But he didn't mention any follow ups."  I have to take this carefully, especially after that nightmare.  I need that training.

     "I didn't.  I gave him some `homework`, he neither solved the problem, nor asked for advice in finding the solution.  If he can't think through, he can't learn the basics.  It wouldn't be worth my time, and it would just irritate him.  I don't like to fail."

     Ranko bristled at that, but plunged ahead, "Would you be willing to teach me?"

     "What do I get in return?" Raccoon asked.

     Ranko got angry, "Training isn't worth that!" she shouted back at him.

     He stopped, glared at her. 

     Uh, oh, Ranko didn't like how angry Raccoon looked.

     "Is that some of the crap Ranma's been filling your head with?!" He stomped away, the blade lashing like an angry tiger's tail.

     Ranko watched him go through a series of very fast combinations, strikes and parries.

     "If Ranma was here, I'd give him his rematch, and hang the consequences," he shouted back.

     Ranko decided not to remind Raccoon that Ranko was Ranma.  She watched the boy force himself to relax, Ranko watched a tranquility that rivaled a Zen master's settle over him, no expression, no emotion.

     "I'm sorry.  But I would never demand that from someone.  That's hardly the only valuable thing you have to offer.  I know Ranma thinks that's all women are good for, I don't agree."

     "Okay," Ranko nodded.

     "How does this sound?  If you want training, you have to hit the books with Tendo-san and me, if you can't manage straight B's on the next midterm, the training ends."

     Ranko wanted to protest, Whatever I have to do to get that training! she reminded herself.  "Okay, what happens if I get straight A's?" Ranko raised the challenge.

     "Something you should be interested in," Raccoon set the blade down, "You'll probably have piloted in combat by then.  And I'll have a chance to figure out exactly how this works.  Once both those have happened, I can teach you this."  He held his fingers like a dead spider or the skeleton of a bowl, palm up.

     "Watch," he dropped a piece of gravel towards his palm.  An octagonal pattern formed in the air over his fingers.

     That's an AT field! Ranko realized.

     Another piece and another shockwave.  Another, and another.  Ranko noticed Raccoon was straining now.  Another stone and he was sweating.  Another and he clenched his jaw.

     Another, this time the shockwaves didn't dissipate at the edges.  The last passed through, followed by the other supported stones, and Raccoon dropped to his knees.  Ranko had to catch him to stop him from crashing face down on the ground.

     "That's quite a strain."

     "Was that what I think it was?" Ranko asked, she was aware his heart was beating like a triphammer.

     "Yes, with the knowledge of Chaugnar Faugn, I figured out how, and I talked with the EVAs."

     Ranko kept her face somber as Raccoon teased her, to learn that secret, she could put up with a lot.

     Raccoon smiled tiredly, "Imagine encasing your fist in that, or extending a blade from the plane of your hand."

     "You can do that?" Ranko couldn't believe it.

     "Well, not yet."

     "Why not?" This was exactly what she was looking for, a way to fight these things hand-to-hand.

     "Well excuse me for not unraveling all the secrets of the Great Old Ones in two weeks!" he shot back, "It took years to learn what I have.  You had to practice for years to get as good as you are."

     "I can pick up new fighting moves real quick," Ranko explained.

     "Well, when the fighting moves include picking through the memories of those things . . . "

     Ranko felt her stomach churn, the merest whispers of those memories terrified her, Raccoon was actively going through them? How crazy is he?

     "Maybe you understand why I'm going slow."

     "Yuck," Ranko told him.

     "That's an understatement."

     "So when can we start?  Tonight?" Ranko asked, she set him up in a sitting position.  Stood close, he looked none too stable.

     "Why not?  Try to be asleep by 22:00, don't worry about the transition, I'll find you," he told her.

     "What's the Dreamlands like?" she asked.

     "You aren't going anywhere near the Dreamlands!  If some of the things that live there found out you were a pilot, you'd never survive," he told her.

     "So what are we going to do?" she asked.

     "Begin at the beginning."

     Ranko knew she'd pick the stuff up fast.

     "Just remember your promise.  Besides, give me a few hours and you can sleep through class."

     Ha! Ranko thought triumphantly, That will almost make it worth it.

     "If you're assuming this is a panacea, a solution to everything, it isn't.  You may not remember everything.  I can teach you to remember more of what you learn in dreams, but everyone has an upper limit and there will be things that you'll never be able to carry between the worlds.  Some things from the Waking World to the Dreamlands, or vice versa."

     Ranko nodded, "I can live with that."  She helped him to his feet, staring intently at him, "I want to learn."

     "Remember the price, you'll have to get your grades up, and keep them there.  Not C's, B's or better, or the lessons stop."

     Ranko nodded, "I give you my word as a martial artist."

     "Give me your word as a human being that holds some weight."

     "Keeping your word is part of the Bushido Code," Ranko protested.

     "No it isn't.  Besides, martial arts were invented by artisans, farmers, and women to defend themselves against the followers of Bushido, who had all the weapons, and the absolute right to kill anyone not in the warrior caste.  In that, I agree with the farmers, when you see a batch on the run, hunt them down like animals, and kill every single one of them."

     "Uh," Ranko was confused.

     "Don't argue history with someone who devours it like candy," Raccoon picked up the blade and continued his practice.

     Well.  I got what I was after.  And I outsmarted you Raccoon! Ranko thought, watching and studying the moves.  Okay.  Blocks would get you cut in half, she realized, and considered how to adapt the moves to her supply of moves mastered.  She also wondered about the calm, to go from enraged to unruffled was also something she wanted to master, her temper and ego still got her in trouble.  I can borrow these later, see what I can learn, she thought as she hefted the blade.  She also wondered how Raccoon would do against a real opponent with one of these swords.

     "So what were you doing up there?" Nabiki asked Ranko as she headed down the stairs from the roof.

     "Making a deal," Ranko replied, smiled at her as she told Nabiki the details how she outsmarted `Raccoon`.

     "Well, we were wondering how we'd get you to study," Nabiki said.

     "You tricked me?" Ranko asked, shocked.

     "We wanted you to learn, some of what they teach might be useful for your future."

     Ranko looked around, feeling confused, "Why?"

     "Why what?  Why do we try to help you?  What do we want for you?" Nabiki poked Ranko in the breastbone, "Maybe we actually want what's best for you.  Maybe we don't like what your prospects are if we let you go as you are.  Maybe we actually care about you, you jerk!" Nabiki stormed off.

     Ranko would have sworn she was crying, What - got into her? Ranko wondered.

     Ritsuko stood in the bathroom of her lab, peering in the mirror.  Anyone else would have thought she was examining if her hair needed another treatment, she knew better.

     The excitement of the newcomers in her life and home had pushed the pain and tension to the periphery.  She'd vainly hoped that the increased activity had forced it into remission, or at least made it so minor she could safely ignore it.

     Not now, as the external strain had reduced, the headaches had returned, not as bad as they had been.  But she couldn't afford the distraction that the constant pain caused.

     She pulled the vial from the medicine cabinet.  A pale violet liquid.  "Five cc's, that won't change things too much."  She hated what this medicine did to her, it dulled her intellect, made it harder to focus.  She needed that focus, both at work and at home, less of it meant less muddle and more headaches and pain, which imposed their own costs.

     More pain, she decided as she raised her skirt and injected herself in the leg muscle.  Long practice kept her from screaming as fire burned through her.  As she lay twitching on the floor of the bathroom, she wondered if the pain of the medication just marginallized the pain of her condition.

     Ranko stood in the dojo, she recognized it as exactly the one Raccoon had made appear when he had beaten Ranma.  She didn't see anyone else, so she centered herself.  She wondered if he would announce himself, or attack by ambush.  For some reason she was expecting the latter.

     "As I told Ranma," Raccoon, in the same T-shirt and boxing trunks and gloves as before, appeared, "Try to hit me, if you can."

     Ranko stood, bowed, and considered.  She raised one fist and walked slowly forward.  Raccoon made no effort to dodge or distract her.

     I don't care how stupid I look, she felt foolish advancing as if her fist was a mace or a club, I don't care how hard I hit him, he didn't say knock him down, he said hit him.  She burned with embarrassment at the humiliation of their last `battle` here.  Nothing Ranma could do had anything like the effect he expected.  Raccoon either dodged or turned the force against him.

     Nothing is going to stop me, Ranko thought as she closed the distance, she was angry at the stupid grin Raccoon wore as she advanced, I won't let him distract me.  All I have to do is make contact, and I've won!

     When she'd closed to a few feet he began sidestepping, Ranko increased her pace and her determination.  She landed the blow, Sheesh!  Even Shinji could do better! she thought disgustedly, Even Raccoon is laughing at you.  She looked at the goofy grin.

     He reached down and picked her up in a hug, "Congratulations, Ranko, that was perfect!  Exactly what you were supposed to do."

     She was so stunned, she barely noticed him reconsidering giving her a kiss, but he didn't give her one as he set her down.  "You wanted to punch me, didn't you."

     She nodded, More than anything in the world.

     "You learned the first lesson, belief here is stronger than anything else.  What you want happens, I threw all the tricks I used against Ranma at you.  You shrugged them all off, nothing deflected you from your goal.  That's the whole secret, you figured it out in the first few seconds, Ranma didn't in an hour and a half, with me dropping hints like anvils all the time."

     "What next, sensei?" Ranko asked, hating calling anyone else `teacher`.

     "You do it again, with more force, more speed."

     Ranko launched one of her super-speed flurry of punches, Raccoon dodged every one.

     "Wrong, you can't trust that the blows will land, you can't just let them happen.  You have to think them through, you have to actively want them to land.  Let's start on a practice dummy and go from there."

     I will learn this! Ranko vowed, I'll beat him, and the nightmares!

     "Okay, time out."  Raccoon made a crude T with his hands.

     Ranko excitedly bounced from foot to foot, "I'm not tired, I can go on."

     "Your mind needs time to assimilate what it's absorbed.  Besides I'm tired."  Raccoon flopped down on the straw mats, laid down.  "What's the hurry?  How long do you think we've been here anyway?"

     "An hour, an hour and a half."  Ranko sat next to him.

     "Nine seconds, maximum, waking world time."

     Nine SECONDS! Ranko stared at him.

     He reached up and tousled her hair, "How do you think Langley and I got to be such know-it-alls.  Don't worry, we've both heard it before.  When you can study something for a week, all in one night, you get a depth and breadth of knowledge that surpasses all others.  Besides, we're as eager to learn as you are, it's just we're interested in more than just martial arts."

     "So we'll spend a week here?" Ranko asks, A week of training, all in just one night!

     "No, just a few hours.  This is your dreamscape, beyond those walls are your nightmares, all of them.  Drawn by your presence and your obvious lack of fear."

     Ranko looked around, listened, "I don't hear anything."

     "And they won't get in, but that's why I'm tired.  You've got some extremely severe fears."  He pointed various points on the wall, "Sexual identity, cats, whether your martial arts skills measure up, the things we fought, the things we'll fight.  They're all out there, clawing and biting at the outer boundary of this structure."

     Ranko was glancing around, looking for weak spots, places they might get in.  She couldn't see any, Would I be able to see any?  Would they disguise themselves until they were right on top of me? she was sweating now.

     "Relax, they can't get in, I'm a stronger Dreamer than you are.  And if I thought I needed help, I could get it.  Something a lot meaner than anything out there."

     "You don't know that," Ranko glanced around worriedly, she'd thought she was safe, now she realized she was among everything that had convinced her to begin this training in the first place.

     "I do."

     Something in his tone drew Ranko's attention back, she'd heard whispers like that, from the things she'd killed.  Cold, and ancient, somehow she realized the grand imperial nightmare was lying on the straw mats, staring up at the ceiling.

     "Relax, center yourself, fear is a warning of danger or pain.  This is your mind, your dream."

     And soon I'll be in control of it, Ranko vowed, she bowed once, then sat and meditated on what she'd learned so far.

     Shinji was screaming again, Asuka realized as she opened one eye.  The nightmares were bad, getting woken up by them was worse.

     "Between the snoring and the screaming, I'll never get any sleep," she complained, fortunately Misato was awake and talking to Shinji.

     She didn't like to admit it, but she probably would have strangled the little twerp if she'd gone in there.  Once a night was bad enough, two, three, five times was preventing anyone from getting any sleep.  Long experience taught her: troops did badly without enough sleep, you could break a man by denying him sleep long enough.  So is this reaction to piloting, or enemy action? she wondered, One way to find out.  She had a plan, she relaxed, let Misato's unintelligible words to Shinji lull her to sleep, she had an ambush to set.  She hoped the Dragon was in a good mood.  I bet ole' Raccoon doesn't have these problems.  Why couldn't they get some competent people as pilots?

     Rei dropped away from Shinji-kun's window before Misato could have seen her.  She'd heard the Second complain about Shinji-kun's nightmares, everyone in the class had heard.

     She landed easily, and began walking back to her apartment.  She looked at Dr. Akagi's apartment in the distance, wondering if Nabiki-kun had any advice on nightmares.

     She'd verified they weren't being sent from the waking world, and they weren't from the Dreamlands.  So it was Shinji-kun doing it to himself.  If that was the case, she could do nothing.  If it was something to fight, she could have fought it, killed it, torn it apart with her bare hands.

     She opened her fists and glanced down at the bloody half-moon marks where her nails had cut into her palms.  She didn't want him to know what she was capable of, what she could do.  He was frightened of her already.  The Second would be of no help, nor would her dreamself, the Meliorist, both also feared her.  The Dragon? she discarded the idea, that would be worse than the current series of nightmares, the Dragon even frightened her.

     As she entered the apartment grounds, she noted someone had soaked the ground into a sea of mud, again.  Who had done it was a mystery, as was why.  The Cthonians would be in full retreat for the night, it guaranteed her a restful night, except her own thoughts would keep her awake.

     Shinji ran, he tried his best not to make a noise.  Asuka had told him if his screaming woke her one more time, she'd tear out his voice box.  He had no reason to disbelieve her.  The corridor he ran through was the one in NERV where he'd first met his father, an appropriate place for nightmares.

     They were behind him, LOTS of them.  He wasn't sure what they'd do when they caught him, eat his flesh, burrow into his brain and make him a slave to those - things.  The monsters they were fighting.

     "Asuka-san, Raccoon, Ranma-san, Nabiki-san, Misato-san, Ayanami-san, Ritsuko-sensei!" he shouted, he didn't care what Asuka did to him in the `real world`, if he didn't survive to get there.

     The blow to his knees threw him to the floor, he spun to face the creatures as they swarmed towards him.  The armored knight drove her polearm through the nearest one.

     "Spineless!  You were waking me up because of this?!"

     He looked at the white eight-legged rabbit-spider that was twitching at the end of a long blade at the end of the polearm.  It looked almost cute, but he knew better.  "Asuka?"

     The knight flipped the corpse off her weapon, "I'm called the Meliorist here, in dreams."

     I think she's a worse nightmare than those things, Shinji thought, "Not just one of them."  Hundreds and thousands of angry, red eyes appeared in the darkness.

     "Oh, that," she said dismissively.

     That's Asuka all right, we're about to be eaten by thousand of those things, and 'Oh how boring.' Shinji thought.  Then a blast of deeper darkness, and a wind smelling of reptile and rotting meat erased nearly all of them.

     A few snarled and leapt at him, he screamed.  Asuka the knight cut them all down in mid-flight with that weird weapon she carried.

     "Any more, any carnivorous teddy-bears, giant fire-breathing penguins?" Asuka, the Meliorist, asked sardonically, offered her hand to pull Shinji to his feet.

     Now that he was closer, he thought this Asuka was about Misato's age, but the combative attitude and condescension was pure Asuka.  "You need training."

     "I'll never learn to wield a weapon like that," he admitted.

     "Ha!" she slapped him on the arm.  "You're a funny guy, when you want to be."

     Shinji rubbed his shoulder, wondering what she could have meant.

     "Okay," Raccoon told Ranko, "That's enough for this session."

     "I want to punch some more."  She smiled, better than half the blows were landing at full strength, forcing Raccoon back when they landed.

     "There's a lot more to this, like manipulating the surrounding, your appearance, your clothes.  So," he gestured.  Instead of a gi, Ranko was wearing a red and blue silk dress, buttoned at the throat and covering her to the knees, it hugged her like it was painted on.

     "Pervert," she said, smiling.

     "Change it if you want.  Change your hair, your clothes, part of the Dreamlands is how you present yourself, beginners throw who they are to anyone who cares to look.  The more experienced can assume the persona they want."  He paused, "That's not funny Ranko."

     "What?" Ranma realized it was his voice, he grabbed a lock of hair, it was black.

     "Change back, or I'll tell him," Raccoon threatened.

     "Tell him what," Ranko was glad it was her voice now.

     "That you stuck Ranma in a dress, he'd kill you if he found out.  Don't doubt that."

     "You don't think much of him."  Ranko made the dress into her usual red top and black pants.

     "You're right.  He's a misogynistic, asexual, violent, narcissistic idiot, what's not to like?"

     Ranko changed her clothes to duplicate Raccoon's usual three-piece suit and fedora.

     "Well, you picked that up pretty quick," Raccoon told her, "Keep practicing.  Try some different hair colors, lip shades, like cosmetics."

     "That's dumb stuff," Ranko retorted, "That's for parties and dances."

     "And those are places to meet people, hear stories, do you intend to live in a cave practicing Martial Arts until you die?"

     Ranko didn't have an answer, `she` was part of a curse, Ranma had no idea about his future, he'd just let it come.

     "Keep practicing, think of it as wearing a mempo, one of those demon face masks samurai wear in battle," he told her firmly.  She nodded.

     Ranma practically bounced out of bed and immediately started his practices, punching and moving as fast as he possible could.  He felt great, no nightmares, and soon he'd be able to deal with those things on a level playing field, then he'd be better than them.

     He noted Raccoon practically crawling out of bed.  "What's wrong with you this morning?" he asked his near-dead roommate.

     "You wouldn't understand even if I told you," he mumbled, headed for the bathroom.

     Ranma continued his practices, That's what you think smart guy.  He continued his katas, each form perfectly flowing into the next.  He felt ready for anything.  Nothing that happened today was beyond him.


     Nabiki was incredibly nervous about this, the walls of the bomb shelter seemed to be closing in on her.  Even with Ranma beside her, she was worried, as chipper as Ranma was, she almost felt like stepping back and letting him take on the whole crowd.  But that wasn't the plan.  The two of them were outnumbered at least 25 to 1.  Akane might have been the expert in mass-combat, but Nabiki didn't know how well Ranma would do.  She was even more worried about her part, all Ranma had to do was keep silent, then bash anything that moved.  She had to get them to attack or surrender, all without seeming to provoke them.

     "So, you have something to say to us?" their leader told her, "Actually, you should listen."

     "You think you have the authority to demand everyone bow down to you?" Nabiki asked.

     "Our concern is the good of the students.  You are a disruptive influence."

     I've been disrupting your operations, Nabiki thought, she noted Ranma's tenseness, his preparation for battle, Stay, calm, we might get out of here without a fight.  I hope.  "You call loansharking, protection rackets and the rest 'for the good of the students', and costing the jobs of the parents of anyone who disagrees?"

     "You could hardly understand the larger picture here, there are concerns you can't see."

     That's a load of bullshit and both of us know it, Nabiki thought.

     "Come on Wondergirl," Asuka dragged her along the shelter's entry corridor.


     "Because Shinji-kun," the name turned her stomach, "Will be hitting the other end, and we have to support him, right?" Asuka was shocked that Rei had passed her, and was dragging her along, "Stop before you hit the door!"


     Oh, scheiss! Asuka thought.

     Nabiki noted the leader was getting angry at her refutations of the points of their belief, Cognitive dissonance, she thought, He doesn't really believe, but he doesn't want it pointed out.

     "Get'em!" the leader ordered.  The troops advanced a step, then hesitated.

     The doors behind Nabiki and Ranma opened, instead of more committee `troops`, Shinji, Toji and Jeff entered.

     "Guten Tag."  Jeff tipped his hat.  Toji cracked his knuckles.  The forces realigned themselves.

     "Kill them!" the troops surged forward.

     The doors behind the leader smashed open.  Rei and Asuka, still hand-in-hand, were framed by the shattered doors.

     "Ohayo!" Asuka said, detaching her hand from Rei's.  It sounded a little shaky to Nabiki, considering Rei just torn the heavy doors clear out of the wall, it was reasonable.

     "I said get them!" the leader shrieked.  They hit the pilots from all directions.

     Nabiki noted that Shinji withdrew a bit while Jeff and Toji advanced to block the exit.  Ranma rapidly moved from target to target, never letting them come to him.  Rei would grab one and hurl him bodily at the largest or nearest cluster.  Asuka, a few steps behind, denying exit and guarding Rei's flanks and rear.

     Within moments, the Marines and Army poured in, and began handcuffing and removing the fallen, or those who've wisely decided to surrender.

     "Shinji-kun!" Rei marked the leader's attempt to get through the crowd.  Shinji moved to block his escape.

     Nabiki realized if the idiot just sidestepped he might have bypassed Shinji, instead he crashed into him to knock him down, and became entangled.  Instantly two Marines dragged the spitting, screaming boy off Shinji, and held him down, cuffed him, then shackled his legs.  An Army Captain stepped between Shinji and the leader, gesturing Shinji to stop, with his other hand resting on his pistol.

     Someone's overplay his part, Nabiki thought as she glanced around, there were no more combatants in her area, anyone around her was either down or surrendering.  She didn't relax until the Marines had cuffed all of the committee, and led them away.  With their leader down, the fight had gone out of the rest.  Quite a few had already surrendered.  Toji was watching the U.S.  troops dealing with them.  Nabiki could tell from his expression, he was glad he didn't have to compare his fighting skills against the pilots'.  They'd been almost 10-to-1 and there wasn't even a bruise on any of the pilots.

     Nabiki saw Hiroko at the door, she worriedly waved at Nabiki.

     "Carry out the plan," Nabiki ordered.

     Hiroko looked at the sullen leader, still spouting threats.

     "Spineless!" Asuka shouted, "Go with her, you too Wondergirl!"

     Shinji and Rei went with Hiroko, they half-carried, half-dragged the boy.

     "We'll get you Tendo!  You can't escape us!"

     "Yeah, right," Ranma said, "We took care of all your fighters."

     "They may attack in other ways," Davis said, "Keep your eyes open."

     "We should go up now," Nabiki said.  Ranma followed her up, Asuka and Davis remained behind.  Nabiki wondered if they were trying to make this an `all-Japanese` show, no foreigners, just Japanese commanding the American forces.

     Nabiki heard the cheers over the fallen leadership.  She wondered how much was pleasure at being freed, and how much was simply 'You always cheer the new regime.' The latter worried her, Part of the `political` end of the operation was to prove to my countrymen can still control their own destiny.

     The cheers increased as Nabiki came into the sunlight with Ranma, who took a pose that would have been stereotypical and ridiculous in another, his typical, environment, but at this place and time, it fit perfectly.

     That's his real problem, Nabiki thought, He was born in the wrong age or the wrong genre.  Here he can become the hero he deserves to be.  Nabiki was a bit alarmed that neither Davis nor Asuka appeared.

     She went ahead with the plan, announcing a general amnesty to those who served the 'old administration', some who didn't abuse their position might have a place in the new power structure.

     She noted with pleasure the concern on some faces, 'Women taking over?!', they looked at her, Hiroko and Rei.  When the concern became angry murmurs, Ranma cracked his knuckles, dissent vanished.

     I didn't want to replace one emperor with another, Nabiki lamented, Then I take the `throne` to prevent anyone else from taking it, and `govern` as hands-off as I can.

     "Congratulations, General Washington," a Marine Major told her.

     Unfortunately, I don't get the reference, Nabiki thought, Where's my History Major when I need him?

     Rei studied the board.  After a week of watching Roku-kun playing chess, she began playing against him.  School was over for the week, Dr. Akagi was collating the test results, she had until this evening, when Captain Katsuragi had required all of them to attend a `welcoming party` at her apartment.

     She had correctly mastered the moves, how each piece moved, how they captured each other.  Other nuances of the game.

     The others had already gone home.  They sat alone on the school grounds, the two spoke no words, for which Rei was grateful, she felt awkward speaking.  She rarely understood the full intent of what others said, and unless she was painfully careful in what she said, others didn't understand her.

     The game was predictable, and the rules never changed, once you understood them, you understood them now and in the future, there was no ambiguity.  Right now she knew she was losing.  Her initial defense had collapsed, and what she had assumed was a diversion was the core of the attack.  Three pawns crossed the board and became three queens, bringing the total to four.  She'd realized the danger and hunted them down, now the two that remained destroyed her last fallback position.  Taking those two pieces had cost the bulk of her force, it had been an aggressive beginner's mistake.  Another diversion from the real goal, her king.

     She thought of it as the Commander, the weakest piece, but the key to the entire game, the sacrifice of the rest of the force was worth protecting that one piece.  Was this part of the lesson? she wondered, If a pawn can become the queen, is that what I am, a pawn? she didn't know, perhaps later she would ask.  She knew Roku-kun would insist on walking her home, she could ask him then.  In that way, he was as predictable as the rules of this game.

     He moved a bishop halfway across the board to a seemingly innocuous position.  Whenever she assumed it was a mistake, he'd made it the core of his attack, when she attacked, she discovered it was a diversion.  Always to her detriment.  She wasn't sure which this was, her defenses were so weak now it hardly mattered.  She knew she could surrender, resign it was called, but she wouldn't.  She had never given up in her life, she had found a way to improve the position of the Commander, even when it had cost her her life.  Even in a game, she couldn't give up, In that way, I am like the Fourth, Saotome.  He cannot surrender either, she wasn't pleased by the comparison, she wondered how far it went, Do others consider me as tactless as he?  As focused on things they don't understand or care about?  Is that why he dislikes me? It didn't matter, the Commander needed him, the Others told her he was important.  She would accept his mistreatment, protect him, until the Commander said otherwise.


     She surveyed the board, she had only one safe place to move the Commander/king, and the bishop so innocuously placed, would move one square and deny even that safety.  She moved, the bishop moved.

     "Checkmate," Roku-kun told her, he collected the pieces when she nodded her agreement with his assessment.  The board folded and served as a box for the pieces, a clever arrangement.

     She stood, brushed off her skirt.  She had failed, failed to find a solution.  Will I fail when the Commander needs me? she wondered.

     "It's just a game," Roku-kun told her.

     Is he reading my mind?

     "Here."  He handed her the board and a book clearly labeled `Famous Chess Games`, "You might enjoy practicing, and I want a rematch next Saturday."

     "Thank you," she said.  Packing the board in her book bag, opening the book and studying the failures and victories of others as she walked home.

From the Journal of Saotome Ranma

     I don't wanna do this, but Maya says all the pilots gotta write, or they ain't pilots.

     The disaster at Misa's place is worth writing about.  I knew we were in trouble when we opened the door.  The stench coming from the kitchen and the sight of Misato in her shorts and T-shirt, with flour and others things streaked all over her, well, I knew we were in bad trouble.

     Kaji, Shinji and Asuka were seated at the table, all sweating.  A bunch of really old roses and two candles on the table made the place look even more depressing.  Now I know why Asuka and Shinji took off after school, to make sure the place wasn't a complete disaster when we got there.  They should have locked Misa-chan in her room and cooked dinner themselves.  Well, actually they did.

     Raccoon started it as we sat down, 'Oh good, suki-yucky'.  Then Rei piled on with 'I dislike meat.' The only reason she came was she was ordered to, and she stayed because she was trying to follow Misa's orders to 'enjoy herself'.

     Misato then announced it was katsu-don, even I know that takes pork and sake, not beef and beer.  I don't know how much of the eight empty cans of beer we saw went in the cook, or the dish.  Even Kaji was sweating at this point, Shinji apologized, of course.  That kid would apologize for the dinosaurs dying, if someone said he did it.  Dinner was supposed to be at 7:00, by 7:30, and a half hour of 'Oh that's too much!' 'I'll just use this!' All of us were ready to run.

     Rit-chan asked about the crumbling center piece, the petals were falling off in droves.  It was Misato's tribute to Kaji, he'd sent her three dozen roses, to announce his imminent arrival in Japan.  Only Misato had been evacuating the pilots at the time, so they'd sat without water until they'd arrived back in Japan.  A week later they weren't any better.

     Misato refusing every offer of help, Nabiki kept smirking more and more.  Why?  It wasn't until I realized everybody who could cook was wincing at every cry of disaster from the kitchen, even me.  'Well, I'm going to start on the buffet,' Raccoon announced and began removing the wilted roses from the vase, and pulling the petals off.

     Asuka excused herself to 'get a salad dressing'.  Rit-chan teased Kaji that food poisoning was more important to Asuka than he was.  Kaji loosened his collar, Misato and Asuka had been at daggers-drawn over him all evening.

     Raccoon handed me the petals and his pocket knife to cut the white part off the petals.  Asuka returned with wasabi, sesame oil and a can of beer, she handed Shinji a big spoon and a potholder.  He and Rei started stripping the thorns off and roasting them over the candles.  Asuka put the broken up stems in the unused beer.  Nabiki was giggling at us the whole time, Rit-chan and Kaji soon joined her, until from the kitchen came Misa's memories of her college days with Kaji and Rit-chan.  I think Rit-chan wanted to kill her, and Asuka would help.  Kaji was just embarrassed.

     I didn't care, if our two brains were actually agreeing on something, it must be right.  It did smell a LOT better than what was coming out of Misa's kitchen.

     The squawk from Misa about the vandalized roses would have been funny, except whatever she'd been cooking burst into flame.  Jokes aside, we started fighting the fire: covering the pans before drenching the entire stove and countertops with sudsy water, another Asuka/Raccoon idea.  Despite her protests, everything went into the sink and was thoroughly soaked with water.

     Rit-chan knew a rebellion when she saw one, she thanked Misa for the invite as we left.  Raccoon pulled Asuka with us as we left, Rei grabbed Shinji's arm, then Asuka grabbed Kaji.  We all hurried away, leaving Misa-chan to clean up the mess.  Nabiki brought what we'd prepared, we nibbled on it as we walked down the stairs, it was weird, but actually okay.  Unfortunately, it just made us hungry.

     I suggested okonomiyaki, there was a place right on our way home, and it was open until 9:00.  Nabiki looked like she was going to burst as she, oh so innocently, asked 'Do you like okonomiyaki better than girls?' then burst into laughter before I could answer.

     One builds beds out of plumbing, the other laughs herself silly at her own jokes.  Do I really want to know which of my roommates is more nuts?

Hair Bomb

     Nabiki had had to do some smooth walking, but she had Ranma right where she wanted him.  Leaning back with his head over the bathroom sink, and she had all Sunday afternoon to do this.

     "Why do I have to do this?" Ranma asked.

     "Let's just say the . . . scent of L.C.L.  is becoming noticeable," she said, "Since you bathe regularly, it has to be your hair.  So it's going to get a proper washing.  Not that rinse and go you've been doing.  Besides, you don't have to do this."

     "I don't."  Ranma sat up.

     "Sure," Nabiki pushed him back down, "You can stink instead.  Your choice."

     Ranma sighed and sat still.

     Yes, Nabiki thought.

     "Good day, Tendo-san, Saotome-san.  Ah, he agreed."  Davis entered the bathroom, "I'll have you know I thought we'd have to use chains and one of the NERV fire engines."

     Ranma frowned at the other boy.

     Nabiki briefly considered a splash of cold water, but she'd have to work too hard to get Ranma to trust her again.  "Another word," she told Davis, "And out you go."

     "Just one question, are you also planning to cut his hair?" he asked.

     "What do you think Saotome, do you need a trim?" she asked.

     "I dunno, what do you think?" Ranma said.

     "I'd cut off the pigtail."  Davis stood, "But that's just me."  Davis ran a hand over his short hair, "Why give someone a handle in a fight?"

     As he left, both Nabiki and Ranma shuddered at the memory of the pilots first fight in Japan.

     "Hey, where you going?" Ranma asked as Davis left.

     "Getting some better scissors from my kit," Davis called back.

     "Afraid to be alone with me Saotome?" Nabiki asked seductively, "If you try anything I can always yell for help."

     Ranma was flustered by that, Nabiki started unwrapping the binding on his pigtail.

     Davis walked in with a small case, "I used this for the wigs and moustaches, most of them are real hair."

     "What's that?" Nabiki saw something small and white fall out of Ranma's hair.


     "Grab it!" Nabiki shouted as hair, inches, feet then yards of it, sprouted from Ranma's head.

     Ranma had a more practical answer as hair covered the floor in greater and greater depth, he started climbing for higher ground, taking Nabiki with him.

     Davis took a deep breath and dove into the mass, surfacing a moment later with the long sliver.  Nabiki managed to shove it in the endless torrent before she and Ranma slipped beneath the swirling mass.  Nabiki managed to tie it off, before darkness enclosed her.

     Nabiki wakened again, "I had this terrible . . . " she stopped as she looked down into the sea of hair that covered her to her waist.  Ranma had a grip on one of her arms, Davis on the other.  She guessed Davis was wedged between the doorjamb and the ceiling.  Ranma seemed to have wedged himself in the corner like a spider, one foot on each wall, his hand on the ceiling.

     "Are you all right?" Davis asked, earning a dark look from Ranma.

     "Yes, I'm being dangled over a sea of hair, WHY WOULDN'T I BE ALL RIGHT?!" Nabiki shouted at him.

     "She's fine," Davis said, Ranma nodded.

     Nabiki considered hitting both of them, but if either let go, she'd `drown`, like she nearly did.  "What is all this?" she demanded, "And how do we get out of here?!"

     "I think it's my hair," Ranma admitted.

     "Look, I like holding hands, but I'd rather have my feet on something," Nabiki said.

     "Uh, Tendo-san."

     She knew she was in trouble when Davis used that tone,

     "The ceiling in here is 10 feet, there's about a foot and a half of free space.  The only places to stand that are high enough are the door jambs, and there's no guarantee I could reach the other one if I gave you this one."

     "Not that much of a gentleman?" Ranma asked, "Huh, Raccoon?"

     "Being a gentleman isn't a suicide pact, I can't swim in this stuff, and I can't jump like the fabulous, fighting, human hair-bomb!"

     "Well, you're so smart!  Think of something!  I . . . what's so funny," Ranma asked Nabiki as she started laughing at them.

     "This is serious!" Ranma said.  Nabiki kept laughing.

     "This is your all your fault, Saotome, poor girl has completely lost her grip on reality.  Condemned to a life as a giggling idiot."

     Nabiki laughed harder, looking from one glaring boy to the other.  Finally she managed to sober up.  "Why don't we open the door?"

     "None of us are that strong," Davis said.

     "Burn it?" Ranma asked, "No, Nab-chan could get burned too."

     "And we'd be asphyxiated," Davis added.

     "Well.  My arms are getting stiff," Nabiki told them between chuckles.

     "Just think of all the money you'll make selling locks of Ranma's hair tomorrow, and for the next few years," Davis suggested.

     Nabiki enjoyed Ranma's grumbles at the suggestion.

     "And you didn't know you could do this?" Davis shouted at Ranma, "Saotome super technique: Hair Bomb, I can produce 11 cubic yards of hair a second.  Where'd the mass or energy to produce all of this come from?  Are you even from this planet?"

     "Now, now," Nabiki soothed, "He lost his memory.  He wouldn't know if he was an Angel or not."  She was aware all Ranma had to do was let go, but he'd never do that.

     "Of course you are correct," Davis bowed, nearly lost his footing.  "The only other thing I can think of, besides waiting for Akagi-sensei, is to eat our way out, but hair isn't digestible."

     "Terrific," Ranma said, stared off into space.

     Nabiki didn't mind holding hands, but her arms were beginning to hurt.

     Ranma glanced around, "Ah, I have to go to the bathroom."

     "Below you and to the left," Davis replied.

     "I'm serious!"

     "So am I."

     Nabiki desperately tried to think of anything except how this could get any worse.

     Ritsuko walked into her apartment, after a hard day she was starting to enjoy the dinner being ready, and a bit of playful banter.  Her earlier concerns about Nabiki and Ranma had been relieved.  The three, or four, way battle kept things platonic.  She looked around, none of them were in sight, no sounds or smells of food, or any other activity.

     "Kids!" she shouted.

     "We're in here!" came the ragged chorus from the bathroom.

     She headed over, turned the knob, but the door wouldn't move, "Unblock the door."

     "We can't from this side," Davis answered.

     "Get an ax or break it down!" Ranma shouted.

     "Hurry!  Please!" Nabiki yelled.

     She's hurt, Ritsuko thought as she slammed her shoulder into the door, it barely budged.  The Hell with this, she summoned her full strength and crashed into the door, it cracked under the impact, but didn't open.  That's impossible!

     "Oh shit!" she heard Davis.

     "Don't let go!" Nabiki screamed, "My hand!  Take my hand!"

     "Doc!  Hurry!" Ranma yelled.

     She hit the door again, splitting it completely, breaking it clear of the jamb.  Rather than pushing into the room, the door shoved her back and something black poured into the hall.

     "Find him!" Nabiki shouted as Ritsuko shoved the broken door aside, the bathroom was still half full of some weird material, it looked almost like hair.

     "Get his knife," Nabiki dragged Jeff out of a mass of the stuff with a tendril of the material wrapped tightly around his throat.

     Ranma pulled the knife and sawed at the garrote.

     Once free he dropped to his knees, "Thanks."

     Ranma hauled him up and out of the room, Nabiki followed close after.

     "What happened here?" Ritsuko looked around the bathroom, as the kids headed into the living room.

     "Uh, I decided to wash Ranma's hair," Nabiki explained, "That happened."

     "Do you know a wig manufacturer who wants some raw material," Davis coughed, "Cheap?"

     "I think I need to call a clean up crew."  Ritsuko carefully walked through the hallway and the `drift` of black hair, "Are you all right?"

     "Yeah, great," Nabiki said as she lay on the living room couch.  Ranma was carefully rubbing her arms and shoulders.

     "What else is going to happen around you three?" Ritsuko walked to the phone.

     "Well, there are those ancient beings who'll periodically attack," Jeff sat rubbing his throat, "Sorry about dinner."

     "We'll go out, I need to use a bathroom anyway.  I don't think I want to try in there."

     "Doctor, can we include Ayanami-san?  I'll pay for her," Davis said, "I think if she has your permission, she'll actually come with us."

     Ritsuko sighed, "Yes, all right."  She dialed the phone.

     "It could be worse?" Nabiki offered.

     "Really?" Ritsuko asked sarcastically, "How?"

     "Ranma could have gotten splashed, then the hair would be red and black."

     Ritsuko wasn't sure how that made things worse.

Nabiki's Pictures

     Hiroko approached with the day's take, "Boss, once again, I have to say.  I had my doubts, but you were right again."

     "About what?" Nabiki had been too busy assembling the organization to pay too much attention to the selling of pictures, it was only Monday and she had the job half done, with Hiroko and Davis's help.  The elections on Saturday had been a formality.  In their class Roku-kun had moved nominations be closed and the current officers keep their positions.  Rei had seconded almost instantly, before Asuka could support her friend Hikari.

     `Someone` had passed the word to do likewise in every other class, so the girls held the power they'd been given, only now with the implication the `new administration` approved, even endorsed them.  It would make things interesting.

     She counted out the money, already calculating her friend's cut as she counted.  She noted the former school mafia tough, staying close enough to guard Hiroko, but far enough away to be unobtrusive.  What an organization I'm `in charge of`, Nabiki thought, wondering where her group stopped, and the 'eyes and ears' started.

     "Those pictures," Hiroko said, "They were a bit racy, and a little out of character, but there were selling like hotcakes all day.  I've never seen business this good."

     Nabiki noticed the pile was heavier than usual.  "Which pictures were those?" Nabiki asked.

     Hiroko put the negatives in their clear plastic sleeves in front of her.  Nabiki's heart froze as she realized they were pictures of her.

     "Some of these were selling better than Asuka's."

     Nabiki was thinking furiously, she'd had Jeff's camera for a least the last four days, there was no way he could have snapped these pictures, yet there she was, in glorious color.  Coquettish in a fancy dress.  Awakening with a smile on her face.  Her in her black plugsuit.  A few of how she actually looked in the morning, those were the highest priced, at least five times any other pictures they sold.

     I'll kill him! she thought, "You have the order sheet?" If I can return the money, I can prevent these from going out.

     "Sure," Hiroko handed her the sheet, "That's a carbon copy.  Davis-san has the original, he already handed out the orders I took before lunch."

     Nabiki abandoned thoughts of buying her way out, and switched to thoughts of homicide.

     "Asuka bought a couple," Nabiki observed, No surprise, she bought one of the `wreckage in the morning` pictures.  Nabiki wondered how slowly it was possible to kill someone.

     "Selling well, were they?" Nabiki managed, Hiroko was obviously not in on `Raccoon's` nefarious scheme.

     "Oh yeah, well some people asked for dartboard-sized, but most people wanted regular prints"

     Nabiki could barely manage to hide her shock, she was used to being the object of fear, terror and loathing, the `Ice Queen of Furinkan High`, not someone who was the source of these pictures, or the object of that kind of interest.  It had to be Kensuke, but how did he get inside Dr. Akagi's apartment? Nabiki wondered, she noted with disappointment that Ranma hadn't bought any.  She debated taking the negatives, and destroying them.  She looked at the money in her hand, considered, finally deciding that turnabout was fair-play.

     She handed the package back to Hiroko, "When Davis-san gives you any more pictures to sell, check with me, I'd like to coordinate operations."  She counted out the money the girl had earned, "Ice cream and romance manga?"

     "No, boss, college-fund.  I'm going to be the first in my family to go to college," Hiroko said proudly.

     "Business?" Nabiki asked.

     Her confidant looked embarrassed, "Psychiatry.  I want to be a doctor.  Try and eliminate the assumption that mental problems are different from physical difficulties."

     "There's nothing to be ashamed of," Nabiki countered, even in `modern` Japan, there was a prejudice against mental illness as somehow 'wrong.' It explains most of the Nerima Crew, in the West they'd be hospitalized, not causing havoc.  "There's nothing wrong with being ambitious.  If you ask nicely, and work on your English skills, Raccoon may even get you considered at Harvard.  It's a good school and getting in depends on who you know, and he's the nephew of a Department Dean.  Besides, I'd like a friendly face there when I go."

     "You think he'd, would he really?"

     "Ask.  All he can do is say yes or no," Nabiki told her.

     Hiroko nodded and ran off.  Her bodyguard waited a moment, then followed.

     "Talk to him soon, 'cause I'm going to kill him!" Nabiki said, wondering if any special `security` had been assigned to her.

     Hiroko walked away from her meeting, she glanced back to her `faithful watchdog`.  He was one of the 15 that had tried to ambush her.  She wondered at the change, it made sense, Ranma and Roku-kun managed to scare many of the worker bees to switch sides.  She wasn't afraid of him now, the boss had assigned him to her, to make sure nobody failed to understand she was the boss's emissary, her voice and eyes.

     Hiroko paused, pulled the picture Roku-kun had given her.  A picture of her boss in a sexy and forceful pose, in her skin-tight plugsuit, this was one picture that wasn't for sale.  Hiroko even had the negative.  She looked at her boss, she was too embarrassed to tell Nabiki how much of a crush she had on her.

     She signed, she knew Nabiki was in love with Ranma, like half the girls in the class.  But Ranma didn't care about her, or anyone else if reports were accurate.  She wished the boss would look around and see someone who really did care about her.  She'd been so happy when Nabiki had told her to come with her to Harvard.  It would be a dream come true, maybe . . . No, she realized, She'll be a business woman, I want to be a doctor.  She signed again, replaced the picture in her bookbag.  She walked on, considering the unfairness of the world as a whole, and love specifically.

     "Davis!" The door to Dr. Akagi's apartment slammed open, a furious Nabiki framed in the doorway.  She scanned the room for her target.

     Ranma knew to make himself scarce when Nabiki sounded like that, out the balcony and up two floors onto the roof.

     "Yes Tendo-kun, you called?"

     Nabiki forced herself to calm down a bit, "What is the meaning of giving Hiroko pictures of me TO SELL?!"

     "Ouchy, my poor ears," Davis said, trying to look innocent.

     "I'll tear'em off and feed them to you, if you don't answer my question!"

     "It was a revenue stream you'd overlooked," Davis answered breezily, "You don't recognize how much you're admired, there are a number of boys, and girls, who have a huge crush on you."

     Nabiki felt the world crumbling around her, "Me?" she asked.

     "Of course, you're not as cute as Ranko, as exotic as Langley or as mysterious as Ayanami, but you are a pilot, and you don't take any disrespect from anyone, not me, not Ranma, not Langley, although the three of us attack each other.  There's a lot of people who admire that.  There were also a lot of people who fantasize about your softer, more vulnerable side."

     Nabiki wasn't happy about what the hentai squad would be doing with her pictures.

     "Besides, you did it to us, it's only fair you'd get the same treatment."

     "I had your camera, how'd you get those shots?!"

     "Oh, there are ways.  You've got the Leica, I have other cameras.  Including another Leica."

     Defeated Nabiki fell back to a more trustworthy position, "What cut do you want from the pictures?"

     "My usual, you can choose the charity."

     Nabiki sighed, she hated being outmaneuvered, but she respected anyone who could, "Okay, I won't kill you for this, but warn me next time!"

     "Well, there is a set going through NERV as well, it seems even NERV employees like pictures of the pilots."

     That decided things for her, "You've got a two-second headstart, then I'm going to kill you."

     "Sporting of you," he said as he ran for the balcony and slid out of sight down the drain pipe.

     This wasn't a wish, she thought, This is purgatory.  She sighed and decided that since she'd chased off both Ranma and Davis, she'd better start dinner, it was her turn anyway.  She wondered if he'd factored that into his plans as well.  People have crushes on me?!! she considered the impossibility of that.

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 9: Revelations Aren't Victories

What has gone before:

     About Book 11, Akane and Soun Tendo throw Ranma out of the house, Nabiki, in the guise of a wish, follows him.  They meet EVA pilots Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, Asuka Soryu Langley and Jeffery Davis.

     The Pilots and the EVAs board the CVB-43 Coral Sea to sail to Tokyo, the Great Old Ones Chaugnar Faugn and Rhan-Tegoth escape, are captured, then killed.  Another Angel is killed by Asuka and Jeff in Unit 02's entry plug.

     With the arrival in Tokyo of all six pilots, the battle against the school `mafia` goes entirely the pilots' way, with the assistance of the U.S. military, they are arrested, leaving Nabiki and her allies in complete control.  The new housemates settle in, with quite a few rough spots for all concerned.  The worst is between Ranma and Jeff, although Jeff has no problem with Ranko, Ranma's female form.

     Ranma decides to face his fears and nightmares directly.  Something defends Misato's group from a rat-thing.  Ranma's incredible hair growth surprises Nabiki, Jeff, and Ritsuko.  Photos of Nabiki and their popularity surprises her completely.

We fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.

Thomas S. Eliot - Francis Herbert Bradley

Chapter 9: Revelations Aren't Victories

     Ranma walked along the fence to school, with Nabiki and Raccoon walking along behind him.  Rei arrived, looked at the trio and said nothing.  Asuka and Shinji arrived, Asuka shook her head in disgust and said nothing.

     That's new, Ranma thought as he walked along.

     "So, Asuka are you training Shinji in dreams?" Nabiki asked.

     Ranma noticed Shinji cringed slightly at the mention.

     "I don't discuss the training of students," Asuka said firmly, "Besides, it was that or strangle him, and who wants to do the paperwork."

     "Thanks," Shinji managed to sound sarcastic.

     "So who's training you, Saotome?" Nabiki asked, "I've noticed no more screaming fits and thrown shoes."

     Ranma nearly lost his footing, barely avoiding a fall into the drainage ditch.

     "Well, I'm training Ranko," Raccoon supplied, "It doesn't take a genius to work out the rest."

     "Oh?" Nabiki asked.

     "Of course," Raccoon replied, "She's not interested in me, that's obvious, she's really not interested in Toji.  And unlike Langley and Captain K, she's not hung up on Kaji."

     "What are you talking about?" Ranma asked.

     Raccoon sighed, "SHE'S IN LOVE WITH YOU, YOU SELF-ABSORBED JACKASS!"  Raccoon jumped off the fence, "I don't know why I even bother," and stormed off.

     "Well, he is right," Nabiki said, "Nobody loves you like Ranko does."  She started laughing, nearly losing her balance.

     "You know Saotome," Asuka began, "It's good to see you help him let his emotions out, he hasn't been that angry in a looong time."  Asuka turned her attention to Rei and Shinji, who were walking side by side.  "Not like that Wondergirl!" she arranged them arm-in-arm, "Like that."  She took up Shinji's other arm, "Now left right, left right, your other left!  Your OTHER left!!  Left right, left right.  See much better."  They marched away, Asuka calling a cadence in German.

     Ranma watched Nabiki jump down from the fence, she was laughing at him again, and hiding it badly, "You'd better start treating Ranko better, or he may beat you up."  She was laughing as she walked after the trio.

     "Why me?" Ranma asked as he started walking along the fence after them.

     "Boss?" Hiroko approached Nabiki and Ranma as they entered the school yard, "You asked me to tell you if he gave me some more pictures.  Well, I've already got a few nibbles about these, but I remembered what you said."  Hiroko handed over the negatives.

     Ranma's squawk was nearly as loud as Nabiki's.  Remember Nabiki, there are such things as double exposures! she reminded herself.  Nearly every picture was Ranma and Ranko.  One or two were Ranko and Jeff.  Nothing risque, about as racy as they got was Ranko with her gi pulled open and the T-shirt underneath exposed.  There were even a few pictures of Misato and Gendo.

     "How did he -?!  I never thought -?!  When -?!"

     Nabiki's hand covered Ranma's mouth, to keep his stammering from distracting her.  "These are fine, the prices are as noted," Nabiki told Hiroko, her factor nodded and charged off to earn her boss money.  Nabiki turned to Ranma, fixing him with a glare as she removed her hand, "Just when, how, and why, did you arrange those pictures, after all the whining I had to sit through about me taking your picture?" Nabiki asked as sweetly as she could.

     Ranma cringed, a loud click interrupted his defense or escape.

     "Perfect!" Jeff called, as he rewound his camera and walked away.

     "Can we kill him first?" Ranma asked desperately, hoping to deflect her anger.

     "I can kill him anytime."  She poked Ranma in the chest with each question, "How?  Where?  When?  Why?"

     Ranma smiled, realized his charm wouldn't work, "During training, he asked Ranko if she'd agree to take some pictures, told me what they were for, charity.  Well, Ranko agreed, he asked `her` to ask Ranma.  Well, the next day, Ranko told him that Ranma insisted all the pictures would be of both of them.  I thought that would end it.  I really did."  Ranma stood still, tried to smile, failed.  Closed his eyes, and calmly awaited his execution.  I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away! he thought, She'll just be madder when she caught me anyway.

     He opened one eye to stare at Nabiki, peering at him very closely, "Only you, Saotome, could be that stupid.  Nobody else could come up with as feeble-minded an explanation as that one, so it must be the truth."

     Ranma decided surviving the next few minutes was worth taking a few insults.

     "How did he get those pictures?" Nabiki asked sweetly.

     Why can't the Angels attack right now? Ranma thought, "Well, Ranko posed for the three with Jeff, and that one alone, I don't know how he got the others.  Spy camera maybe?"

     "He used a spy camera, to get pictures of Ranma with Ranko?" Nabiki let the question hang in the air.  "At the same time, in the same place?"

     "I guess," Ranma admitted, and was very relieved when Nabiki turned on her heel to stalk after their roommate.  Better you than me Raccoon, Ranma thought as he hailed Kenta and Seisuke, two boys in the karate club, who'd expressed an interest in really mastering martial arts.

     Nabiki waved to Hiroko, who sat under a tree, surrounded by customers.  She noted that the bodyguard was keeping the crowd composed.  He nodded to Nabiki once, then continued his job.  Nabiki's prey was elsewhere.

     Part of the crowd Nabiki had expected to find around Hiroko, were surrounding Davis, who sat at the lunch tables.  No Raccoon here, she thought, Too serious.  Kensuke, Toji, and few of the weirdos from the occult and photography clubs, a few other marginal people.  She noted with satisfaction that there were boys and girls in the group, he didn't show any favoritism, and was delivering a stern lecture to these `eyes and ears`.  Most were staring fearfully at the typed sheets he'd passed out.

     I'll find out about that later, she thought as she closed to eavesdropping range.

     "As I said, look for anything unusual," Davis told them.

     "But you've got contradictory things here," Kensuke pointed out, "Increase in animal activity, decrease in animal activity, strange new construction, building or structures being removed . . . well, how are we supposed to find out these things?"

     "I expect you to keep your eyes and ears open," Davis replied, "Look around your usual haunts.  Remember, you are not combat troops.  Use your experience to see what others might miss.  If old lady Yamashima always buys a few daikon and starts buying five bags full, if little 4-year-old Sakura Aoi starts delivering stacks of books on Quantum Physics to a derelict, report it."  He nodded to Nabiki, who'd taken one of the sheets, and was looking it over.

     "Initially you'll get a lot of false trails, false alarms.  Don't worry about it.  Not everything will be heralded by demons rampaging through the streets.  Sometimes, it may start as innocuously as being called to the principal's office, and you end up walking across a bone pile 90 meters tall, that has been accumulating unknown for 300 years."

     Nabiki noted that if he'd meant to scare them, he'd done it.  A few were considering putting the paper back and walking away, or running away at their best speed.  What stopped them, were the photos he laid out, evidently for them to take.  Most were of the EVAs, some in combat, some just sitting or standing, that and the other Leica he'd mentioned.  Kensuke was practically drooling over the possibility of borrowing that camera.

     "So remember, if you see something unusual, no matter how trivial, report it to Tendo-san or myself, or Hiroko-san.  Get good details, where, when, unusual sounds, smells, impressions, anything and everything is important."  He paused, "And don't try to be a hero, most of the things you'll be facing will be regular humans.  However, the dirty little secret about those `Angels` is: most are not native to this planet, they have to be invited.  Think of the mind of a person who would call one of those things."

     Even Nabiki shuddered at that thought, she obviously wasn't the only one who reasoned that those things woke up and charged in.

     "As for the critters themselves, don't assume you can talk, reason or bribe your way out.  This was their planet for a long time," he told them, "They see us as usurpers."

     "It's ours now," Toji replied, got some support from the others.

     "How would you feel, if you went on a vacation and found something had moved in and was redecorating," Davis replied, "You would get rid of them, wouldn't you?"

     "You mean that Goldilocks story is based on them?" a girl from the Chemistry club asked.

     "Not exactly, Matsuda-san, but close enough for our purposes, if you remember that bears eat anything."

     The group dispersed, taking the pictures and the camera with them.  Nabiki walked up, "This is pretty mundane stuff, habits of animals, patterns of weather, buildings, noises, smells."

     "If we wait for someone to report flying monsters or huge footprints, it is already too late," Davis replied, "Better to catch the small stuff early.  No one reports it, for obvious reasons, but when Hitler went into Poland, the Germans had to commit not only the Lightning War part of their army, but most of their heavy siege guns off the western defenses as well.  The French and British could have lunged into Berlin before the Wehrmacht could have disentangled itself, they could have chopped off the snake's head and left Germany intact, instead of in the middle of a devastated region it may take a generation to fully rebuild."

     "So you hit early?" Nabiki asked.

     "And burn them out while it's just people and a few minor creatures."

     "Kind of ruthless, isn't it," Nabiki asked, she'd always thought she was ruthless.

     "Not for war.  In war, you hit now and kill a few, or you hit later and kill a lot, after they've killed a bunch of your's."  He collected the rest of the papers and a few other things and headed inside.

     Nabiki read over the very prosaic descriptions of things to look out for, it read like a Literature lecture, Boring.  She was very suspicious that anyone would know enough to make such a list, complete, but shorn of all the danger.

Queries and Repose

     As the entire class headed outside for lunch, "Hey, Langley!" Jeff hailed his fellow pilot in German, she stopped, waited for him.

     "I thought you were eating lunch with Wondergirl," Asuka replied in German, as they changed to outside shoes.  A custom neither understood, but acquiesced to.

     "She asked to spend today alone, possibly with my chessboard, amazing isn't it?"

     "Do you always have to pick-up strays?" Asuka asked disgustedly, as they headed outside.

     "We picked up you." He ducked under her half-hearted punch, "Seriously, I would like your analysis of our happy, little group."

     "Nabiki only likes you for your camera," Asuka replied, picking out a shady spot to eat her lunch.

     "And the pile of money she thinks I have, tell me something I don't know." Jeff sat down next to her, noted the look of disgust when she opened her Misato-prepared lunch.  He exchanged boxes without asking, he'd made the lunches this morning.

     Asuka watched his pained expression, as he tasted Misato's `cooking`, "Since you're buying the information, General Tembris's command that first year, that's what it reminds me of."

     "Not good." Jeff managed to choke down more of the `food`, "We damn near lost the war right off the bat."

     Asuka nodded.

     "As for the people, Ranma reminds me of Canver, that hulking barbarian from the northlands, you remember him?  Powerful, dumb, but not stupid," she said selecting another morsel, "Shinji and Rei are dual robots, they do what they're told, by anybody."  She frowned, "You haven't changed.  You've already got your intelligence service up and running in what, two weeks?  Counterintelligence and assassination bureaus are, how far behind?"

     "I don't think they're practical right now, I just don't have the operatives or the troops, but I am making inquiries."

     "Kavon's unofficial chief of intelligence for how many years?" she smirked at that, who were really the `experienced veterans` around here.

     "Eighteen in dreams, but who's counting.  What about you, following in the Meliorist's footsteps?  Recruiting fighters, knights, men-at-arms?  Hikari is a good choice, with her you get Toji.  Kensuke wouldn't be worth a moldy bucket of yak milk in a real fight."

     "You seemed able to use that rotten yak milk," Asuka laughed at the memory.  "El Nureenen was furious!  I laughed so hard I fell off my horse.  'Who has done this foul thing?!'" Asuka giggled at the memory.  "No, I don't think we'll be getting any help here, we're on our own, I wouldn't push most of our colleagues too far."

     "You were serious about them being Tembris's people."  Jeff felt the bottom dropping out of the world.

     "Misato is a slob, personally and militarily, Gendo's a creepy, know-it-all martinet, Ritsuko isn't much better."  She angrily stabbed at her lunch, "Do you know how many we lost in the first four months to the stupid mistakes they made?  Six thousand!  Six thousand knights and squires because the camps weren't tidy, because patrols weren't organized, because of mismanagement of intelligence assets?  Why do you think The Meliorist had no trouble allying her five squadrons to your crazy idea?  Pike and longbows in the hands of `refuse`, indeed.  El Nureenen deserved to get killed right then and there.  If we'd had half those lost knights, it would have ended that day!" Asuka told him angrily, "You know that as well as I do."

     Jeff nodded, Asuka looked around, wondering who'd seen or overheard her outburst.  "Look, I've met those two.  Misato was with Kaji in Germany.  Gendo was there once or twice, after the war, poking his nose into everything, everywhere, lording his new authority over everyone."  She smiled nastily, "Like when you were assigned to be Inspector General."

     "I knew the hows and whys a Roman camp was set up, that's all," Jeff countered, "How many fewer did we lose to disease and infection that second summer."

     "I didn't disagree.  As I remember, I supported you, on several occasions.  But Gendo is, how you were thought of."  She finished her lunch, noted Jeff still battling through Misato's `cooking`.  Stubborn, she thought.

     "What about the EVAs, you've been with them the longest, except perhaps Rei, and I don't know if she has the perspective."

     "It's hard to qualify and quantify, a lot of the things you've pointed out, I became aware of.  I half-suspected them before, but, well I always bought or captured my warhorses, usually from you."

     He nodded.  "Great, leaving it for me to ferret it out."  Jeff complained, "Why should here be any different?"

     Asuka chuckled at his hangdog expression.

     A shadow fell over both of them, Nabiki stared down at them, "What are you two conspiring about?  So grim and then laughing."

     "I could not believe Misato's cooking was this bad," Jeff said.

     "I bet him 500 yen he couldn't finish it, two more bites and I think we'll call it a draw," Asuka stared at Jeff, who managed two more bites, then handed the box back.  "I'll give the rest to Ranma, see which of you is really tougher."

     "You hate him don't you." Jeff stood as she did, Asuka stuck her tongue out at him and left.

     "Seriously, what were you two talking about?" Nabiki asked, obviously interested.

     "The war, what happened, how it affects what we are doing now."

     "Oh," Nabiki said, disappointed.

     Shinji was certain he was being watched as he practiced, the school's auditorium was empty and he liked the acoustics.  The rows of empty chairs didn't seem to mind the impromptu recital.  The cello did what he told it, made the music he wanted to hear.  Sometimes it was Western Classical, other times he adapted traditional songs, although he had to pluck the strings to make music for a koto or samisen sound right.  A guitar might not be a bad accompaniment, he thought, but he treasured the time alone.  No one bothered him, he didn't have to worry about Asuka barging in to demand her favorite pieces, or Saotome telling him playing an instrument was dumb.  Or Misato, who would start remembering where she'd heard a song, or what it reminded her of, or what she thought the music 'meant'.

     It was hard work, sometimes he wished he had the courage to play some of the pieces he'd written, in front of an audience.  He wasn't good enough to score for a whole orchestra.  However, he could for the cello, Asuka's and Ayanami's violins, maybe Raccoon's guitar, bagpipes were too loud, but as a private joke he'd studied their range too, and written a piece.  He didn't even know if it was playable, and he didn't have the courage to show it to Raccoon, but that wasn't the point.

     This is what I wanted to do, he thought, I never wanted to fight, not anything or anybody.  If the Angels gave up and went home, that would be fine with me.  Music doesn't fight back, and it does come naturally.  Maybe the only thing in my life that does.

     Rei heard the faint click of a camera, caught a glimpse of suit coat as she turned, she hoped it didn't disturb Shinji-kun.  She thought she was the only one who would sneak into the auditorium to play.

     She could play at her apartment, but it never sounded as good there as it did here.  And her playing had never sounded as good as Shinji-kun's, which was why she didn't resent the usurpation of `her` place, playing here.  It was different from her style, he was different than he usually was.  She wondered why nobody else stopped to listen, to simply enjoy the soft music.

     Rei had to admit, the Second was a better violinist than she was.  But she must have action and motion and great crescendoes, Rei thought, I prefer the quieter, contemplative pieces, so does Shinji-kun.

     She sat unseen, on the floor, concealed between the seats of the auditorium, and let the music take her wherever it wanted.  Eyes closed, she could let the world go by if necessary, only the nagging thought that she'd never told Shinji-kun she liked his playing, interfered.

Cooking Surprises

     Jeff walked through Ritsuko's kitchen, sniffed the dinner he was preparing.  The notes are blending, he thought with satisfaction,  The only disappointment is - the vegetables, they aren't adding as much as they should. Stir fry?  No, he thought, It won't give the right effect.

     Ginger! he realized, Okay, the sugar crystallized or fresh?  He sniffed, let the sounds blend in his mind, and tried to determine which would result in the better mingling.

     "That smells great," Nabiki came in the kitchen, from the dining room, where the others waited.  "It was my turn, you know."

     "I don't mind," he told her.

     "What were you humming?"

     "Humming?  Oh, nothing, just something to help me concentrate."  He sliced the vegetables and put them and the sugared ginger in some water.

     "I've never seen anyone do that before," Nabiki commented.

     "It is a simple infusion, like making tea.  Except without the heat."  A sniff, Now the tones are blended properly.  "Another perfect meal," he told her.

     "This is delicious," Dr. Akagi said.

     "I wonder how much my services as cook would be worth to the Captain?  A room of my own, some EVA training time?  Hmm?"  Jeff asked.

     "Don't forget your friends," Nabiki snuggled up beside him, making calf eyes.

     "Friends should never get in the way of profits," Jeff said gravely.

     Ranma snorted at this, but didn't slow down shoveling down dinner.

     "If you made a bunch of potstickers out of cement - " Nabiki watched Ranma, "Would he even notice?"

     Ranma, `safe` behind the wall of cats, frowned at them both, but didn't pause.

     "A meal is a symphony, tastes, textures all coalescing and contrasting to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts," Jeff explained.

     "Like that tune you were humming," Nabiki said, trying to change the subject.  Smiled knowingly at him.

     "Perhaps," Jeff replied noncommitally, "I just wish he'd slow down enough to actually taste the food.  At the speed he's eating, he could eat Misato's food and not notice or mind it."

     They were in the dojo again, in dreams.

     "No, your hand goes on top, make me take the weight."  Raccoon was showing Ranko the weirdest hold in history.  "Then step, and step."  He matched her pace and step off.  "No, you walk normally, I have to match you."

     "You actually had to learn ta let a girl hold your arm?" It was the most ridiculous thing Ranma had ever heard of.

     "It was all part of a Ballroom Dancing class.  Remember Harvard was trying to turn out gentlemen.  I not only had to take the class, I had to pass.  Etiquette is merely a set of rules, it helps if both sides know what to expect."

     "I still think it's stupid, but I have to learn it," Ranko admitted.  She was glad Raccoon didn't argue, although the smile implied he knew `she'd` be teaching Ranma.  And isn't that weird?

     "Okay, the next lesson, cosmetics and application."  Raccoon led her to a bench with it's end against the wall.

     "Do we have to do this?" Ranko whined, "I really don't see how learning this girly stuff helps me fight."

     "Sit on the bench, back straight.  Okay close your eyes, take as deep a breath as you can, and hold it, now throw your shoulders back, as far as you can.  Now, open your eyes and look down."

     Ranko straddled the bench, then did as ordered, looked at her breasts, "What does that prove?"

     Raccoon sat down, straddling the bench about half a meter away.  "You are a girl.  I know this comes as a big shock, but it is the truth."  Raccoon slid a few centimeters closer.  "Now I can cook."  He slid a little closer.

     Ranko flattened herself against the wall.  She hadn't noticed before, but while she'd had her eyes closed, he'd `moved` the pillars in closer, trapping her between them, and him.  He slid closer.  Ranko was afraid, This can't be happening.  She struggled to get her breathing under control.

     "I can measure you, cut out the fabric, and make a dress, a very good one."

     What kind of gibberish is he spouting? she wondered if he'd gone insane, she'd been afraid of the dream where `she'd` seduced him.  Now it seems as if he'd drawn her here, to rape her.  He kept getting closer, ratcheting up the fear, bit by bit.

     "And use make up, and style hair."

     She realized legs spread, breasts heaving was not the signal she should be sending in this situation.  She should have pushed him back immediately, but she was too frightened now, I can't fight him, not here, not yet.

     "And I am a man, do you agree?"

     "Yes," she squeaked, Just do it and get it over with!  She had accepted his help because she had felt helpless, now she was totally at his mercy.  She had mistakenly thought she'd seen the worst, now she was at the mercy of a greater nightmare than anything she ever considered.  Ranma or Ranko could beat him up in the Waking World, and he'd have days and weeks in dreams to pay her back in full, doing whatever he wanted to either or both, until he finally broke her.

     "So what is this idiot nonsense about `girly` things and `manly` things?"  Something about Raccoon's tone had changed, slightly.

     She looked at him, he was mere centimeters from her face, staring into her eyes.  "I . . . I guess . . . "

     "You are afraid."  It was obviously a statement.

     "Yes." She turned away, ashamed.

     "Of me?  For what?" There was no sympathy in his voice, he was angry, and wanted an answer.

     "That you were . . . going to . . . "

     He slid to the far end of the bench, his embarrassment covered by his need to reassure her, "I would never do that.  I was trying to frighten you, for what I made you think, I apologize.  I thought you needed to remember, I do all the `girly` things you and Ranma have mentioned.  None of it has any effect on my manhood, why should it affect anyone elses?"

     "I guess it doesn't," she admitted, "It's just that . . . "  I don't want to tell him, I don't want him to know, to laugh at me, to have him tease me about it, like Nabiki does, she sighed, realized she had no choice, "I had a dream, a nightmare, involving you."  Ranko told him the dream, all of it, and was ashamed.  She expected laughter, jokes, something.

     "So you seduced me to hurt Ranma?" he asked quietly.

     She nodded.

     "Then why did you ask me to train you?"

     "Because you aren't afraid of those things!  You aren't afraid of anything!" she shouted back, squirmed under his gaze.  She felt like a bug.

     "Ranko, please come sit over here." He tapped the bench beside him, "It is a request, you are free to refuse.  It will have no effect whatsoever on your continuing to train."

     She glanced around, then nervously sat next to him.  She was petrified again, when he leaned close, but he only touched his forehead to hers.

     "There is absolutely nothing wrong with being afraid.  I told Shinji, I'll tell you, fear is a warning that you are in danger or about to be hurt.  The technical term is inferential information, it's a guess based on instinct and half-remembered things.  It isn't silly, it isn't `unmanly`, or any other such nonsense, it's just a message that something is not right, look around, think about what's going on."  He smiled at her, "Okay?"

     "Yeah, okay." She smiled back, "I bet you think I'm being a dumb girl."

     He sat back, "Ranko, someday I'll tell you a little about how I met Captain Katsuragi and Commander Ikari, and you are going to conclude, for my being here - with them, that I am the stupidest thing on God's green Earth," he paused, "And you'd be right.  But I don't have to tell you about duty, do I?"  He waited for her to shake her head before he lifted the make-up case.  "And let me tell you something about fear.  Our Mister Saotome announces 'I'm a guy!' until most of us want to yell back, 'We got it the first hundred times, SHUT UP!'  The conclusion?  He's the only one not convinced."

     Ranko shuddered at that, wanted to protest, but saw the lesson within.  Then she looked at the case, "Let me guess, I can say no, but the lessons end, right?" she asked.

     "Of course not, we go on to the next lesson, I let one of the nightmares in, and let you confront it.  But since you don't need my help, you face it alone."

     Ranko blanched, "Okay, sensei, what's in mind?" She smiled nervously as Raccoon pulled out the paints and powders and brushes and pencils.  He started in to work, having her move this way or that.  Purse her lips, relax or tighten certain facial muscles, all the while explaining correct use, various nuances and effects of color and shade.  Ranko stood it in good grace, until he was finished, because he never let her conjure a mirror to let her see what he was doing to her.

     "Now imaging walking into class tomorrow, and giving Toji a sloppy, wet kiss, looking like that," Raccoon told her as the mirror formed.

     She didn't have to repress an involuntary shudder, when she saw what was in the mirror looking back, she screamed and jumped 10 meters.

     "So you like it?" he asked, grinning at her obvious trauma.

     Ranko walked back and stared at the mirror, what she saw wasn't hideous, but had been totally unexpected.  "That's me?"  She examined the streaks of gray in her now dull, red hair, the deep crows-feet at her eyes and mouth, the deep lines across her forehead, blotchy complexion in places, sallow in others.  She looked like a woman who lived a very hard and unforgiving life, she was maybe late forties or early fifties.  "That's crazy, can you change me back?"

     "You want to be young and beautiful, and sexy again?"

     That stopped her, Ranma had never been vain about how Ranko looked, she was beautiful, everybody and his brother told `her` that.  To lose it so thoroughly, and then to want it back . . ..  "You can do this in the real world?" she asked.

     "Waking World," he corrected, "Yes, I was in the Harvard Theater Company for five years, I can do make up, sew costumes, paint sets, stage fights, run and repair the electrical and lighting systems.  'Hey Davis!  It's broke, crawl in there and fix it!'" he added disgustedly.  "Why?  Are you planning to give Toji a good scare?  A fight scene?"

     "Naw, yeah, maybe something like that, naw something different, just asking," Ranko paused, "What's next, more make up?"

     "No, fears.  I've felt some of them out there.  From what you told me, I think we push things ahead on that front.  I picked one out, I'll bring it in, I want you to deal with it, I'll stay to back you up, initially.  But in the end, it is your problem, the solution has to be yours as well."

     Ranko swallowed and nodded, she wasn't happy about going head-to-head with a nightmare this early in her training.

     "It isn't weak, but it seems strangely, I guess gentle is the best word."  Raccoon gestured, and a small white cat with black feet appeared and looked around.

     It mewed piteously, then looked up at the rafter Ranko was hanging from, and mewed again.

     "Ranko get down here!" Raccoon ordered as he picked up the cat, holding it tightly, so it couldn't escape.

     "Nononononononononononono!" Ranko suddenly realized the rafter had vanished, and the floor was coming towards her, she'd run when her feet touched down.

     "Ranko STOP!"  She heard and felt the compulsion he'd used on Ranma, she froze involuntarily.

     "Now SIT DOWN!"

     She sat of her own free will, facing the ca ca ca ca cat.  It was already trying to escape Raccoon's grip.

     "You calm down too!" he told the cat.  It subsided, staring at Ranko, and continuing to make plaintive mews.

     "I know you are afraid of cats, but I want you to consider why you are afraid of this cat in particular.  I think it's trying to be friendly, it hasn't used its claws on me, it seems clean and free of disease.  Why is this cat separate from your general fear of cats?"

     Ranko didn't know, but she was especially afraid of this cat.  She shook her head.

     "Very well." A cage materialized around the cat, "Sit as close to the cat as you can, for as long as you can."

     "Where are you going?" Ranko said desperately.

     "I have an appointment."

     "What about the dojo?" she stared at the cat pleadingly staring at her, "What about the cage?"

     "You want them to continue?"


     "Then hold them yourself.  It's easier to maintain something than create it, all you have to do is believe it will continue."  He tipped his hat and vanished.

     Ranko believed as hard as she could, in the dojo, in the cage.  She sat less than two meters away from the cat, it kept reaching through the bars and mewing, as if being distant from Ranko was unpleasant or painful.

     Ranko finally had to stand up and hide behind a pillar, or out of sheer terror, she would have thrown up all over the floor.

     Ranma opened his eyes, looked around the darkened bedroom.  He hadn't told anyone, but since he fought Nyogtha, his night vision had gotten better, a lot better, like being able to read in a pitch-black room better.  He looked over at Raccoon who was standing next to his closet, completely dressed: suit and tie, walking stick.  He silently closed his closet and headed out.  Ranma slipped out of his bed and decided to follow him.

     Raccoon got his boots and hat from the entryway, slipped out on to the balcony, and started climbing to the roof.  Ranma hopped up on the railings, saw Raccoon struggling over the parapet of the roof.  He walked over several balconies, and jumped up to the roof, hiding behind a chimney once he'd arrived there.  He glanced around it, looked at the entire roof, there was no one else up there!

     I saw him go over the edge to get up here, Ranma started searching the area, And mine was the only real hiding place!  His search found nothing, not even footprints in the gravel, Raccoon, yeah that's it.  He climbed back into Dr. Akagi's apartment.  He saw the `crenelation` they called it.  Alternating short and tall cats, arranged in a wall around his place at the table.  Bits of ceramic, cloth, glass and metal, he could smash all of them with barely any effort, but what they looked like made him afraid of even touching them.

     What do you expect, they'll come to life and attack you? he asked himself.  He hadn't considered that there actually was a technique, to combat phobias.  Nabiki and Raccoon only talked about it right in front of you, why would you know it exists?  He picked the smallest, least realistic cat piece, only the color and the collar that read 'NEKO-CHAN' made it a cat, it could have been a panda bear without the collar.  He carefully picked it up, What did you expect?! he cursed his own fear, That it would come to life?  He carefully set it aside, and reached for the largest.  It was terribly realistic, Terrible is a good word.  His trembling hand inched closer, he was ready to snatch it away at the least sign of danger or movement, his gut rumbled its displeasure as his tension rose.  His breathing was faster now, his heart beat was racing, If I faint, he thought, No one will see.

     He closed his hand on its neck, if it came to life now, he could strangle it, or break it's neck.  More like throw it away, and run screaming from the room, he admitted.  But it hadn't moved, hadn't gotten warmer, or furry, or meowed.  He moved it to the center of the line of cats.  When he released it, he felt like he'd just run a dozen marathons, his knees almost collapsed beneath him, he was exhausted.  He also noticed, to his shock and shame, he'd wet himself.  But I did it, he thought triumphantly, as triumphantly as his condition allowed.  He sighed, no one else was awake, he'd rinse out his shorts and get a clean pair.  Then I am going to come back here, and rearrange these statues, he thought, Then I am going to sleep for a week.  He hadn't felt this tired and shaky since he fought Nyogtha.

First Cthonian Attack

     Rei sat upright in her bed, she didn't want to.  With all her might, she was trying to break free, to call for help, or to escape.  It was too difficult, they were making it too difficult, she could feel them making it too difficult.  The walls were closing in, horrible things lurked in every shadow, things that would appear if she spoke, or moved.  She hugged her legs closer to her, and tried to hold on.  Voices whispered that she could escape, by telling what she knew, revealing it now would only save time.  They would win eventually.  The runes on the walls could not save her, she could see they were dark, adding to her feelings of hopelessness.

     She felt ashamed that she might reveal what she knew, before they destroyed her.  She did not want to betray what had been confided to her, what she knew, it would be wrong, but they were strong.  Individually she was stronger, but they came as a group, fought together, burrowing into her mind, poisoning her personality, weakening her resolve.  She felt it slipping away, if she could only cry out, the Commander would hear, and send help.  She knew she was watched, monitored every day and minute of her life, she accepted it.  She lived within her own mind most of the time, but now that was being violated by her enemies.  When they violated her last stronghold, they would have the means to attack the others, Commander Ikari, the pilots, Maya.  She balled her fists in frustration, she had to hold out, to do something to attract the attention of those who watched continuously.

     She felt their strength fade, their grip slacken, then she screamed.  A howl of boiling agony, she felt their pain, and reveled in it, even as she screamed in mirror anguish.  They should die for what they had planned.  Galvanized, she leapt out of the bed, and staggered to the door.  The pain was weakening, as the link dissolved.  She threw the door open, and looked down.

     Two of them, massive worms nearly 15 meters long, with tentacled mouths, dissolved under the shifting streams of two columns of water.  A third, some 25 meters long, writhed sinuously, caught by some unseen force, even as she had been.  She could still faintly hear the howls of death coming from the pair that crumbled away, and the sheer terror from the third.  It knew it was next, pounding on the walls of its own mind, just as she had.  To order its body to escape the exact fate it had planned for her, revelation of all it knew, followed by its destruction.  Rei had no sympathy, they had touched her mind before, they looked on the entire human race as mere food stocks.  The third refused to surrender, locking its secrets away.  Thus, preventing it from warning its brethren of the method of this ambush and murder.  Now it screamed audibly, the water hadn't touched it, something else was killing it.  Tearing it apart, stripping it down to its core, to sift through its secrets at leisure.  She wondered if the EVAs did the same, felt the same.  It began falling to gray powder, chunks falling in the mud.

     Rei turned away.  She hated these things, for what they had tried to do, for what they planned to do, but their torture was beyond her ability to accept.  A few moments later, it was over, all three were dissolved.  She was safe, saved, help would be arriving soon.  The Commander would be arriving soon, she would have to provide him with an account of what had happened.  She stared down as the water columns from the hydrants reduced and disappeared.  Her vision through darkness was one of the many things that set her apart.  She would report what she saw, accurately.  She stared at the scene for a moment, shook her head in disbelief, and it was gone.  She wondered if she had been hallucinating.  As the first NERV Security and Technical Services arrived, to secure her and examine the corpses, she returned to her apartment, to get dressed and await the Commander.  He would need to know everything she saw, or even thought she saw.

     Ranma felt too shaky and exhausted to stay awake, but his victory over the cat statues made his mind race too much for him to sleep.  He lay in bed, meditated on what he had done, what he'd learned and what it enabled him to accomplish.  Maybe Nab-chan and Raccoon aren't so stupid, wanting me to learn stuff.  He heard the bedroom door open and close.

     Ranma opened an eye, as Jeff quietly took off his coat and hat.  "You're wet."

     Jeff touched the coat as he hung it up, "Not as much as others."

     Ranma froze, wondering what the other boy knew.

     "Not very, it must be something in the local water.  I decided that since everyone else was talking about you and water, I would try some experiments.  Nothing really happened, so don't worry about being a pilot, one has nothing to do with the other."

     "Look Raccoon!" Ranma hissed, "I didn't ask for this.  I can't control it."

     "It's not that bad." Jeff climbed into the top bunk, "You could turn into an alligator, or a banana slug, or just a banana.  Or you could really be Ranko, stuck turning into Ranma.  That would be a curse."

     Ranma growled at the other boy, he just didn't understand the torment that Ranma went through, how horrible the curse was.  Ranma didn't see Jeff examining the back and front of his hand, opening and closing it, wondering what had changed, and when.

Dream of Fire

     Misato enjoyed the fit and feel of the plugsuit.  It showed off every curve to perfection, she wondered if Nabiki and Asuka, who were running in front of her, knew how good they all looked.  Probably not, they're just kids.  She also enjoyed the feel of the material sliding over her skin and that it was tight enough that she didn't bounce as she ran flat out.

     The fire behind them was still closing, the pilots were all running at their best speed, the fire ever faster . . . No, she realized, Not all the pilots, Davis and Rei were off to one side, drawing off the bulk of the fire, taunting it, teasing it, somehow holding it off, even while they held its attention, "Here I am!" they shouted between cries in other languages that drove the fire back.

     Ranma and Nabiki vanished, safely beyond the fire's reach, then the fire cut off that exit, Misato and Shinji halted, Asuka dove through the flames to safety, a moment later, Rei followed her.  Misato glanced around, Davis held out a hand, soliciting her help.

     She drew the pistol from her shoulder holster, and smoothly shot the boy, as Shinji called for her to help him.  The shot meant to kill, didn't.  Davis went down in a scream of anger, pain and betrayal.  The fire rushed towards him, like a pack of vultures or jackals, ripping at his flesh, searing and scorching.  Misato ignored the screams, and pushed Shinji to safety, then left as well.  The flesh charred from the bones, the stench of roast pork was her last image as she moved to safety, to other the pilots.  Asuka had a strange expression on her face as she raised a strange polearm, and ran Misato through, spilling her guts all over the floor.  Rei seemed to approve, Shinji looked disappointed.

     Captain Katsuragi screamed and threw off the sweat soaked sheets.

     Asuka opened the door to Misato's room.  Misato froze, the girl had the exact same odd expression.

     "Not you too," Asuka glared for a moment then returned to her own room to go back to sleep.

     Where had that come from? Misato knew that when she faced a tactical or strategic decision, her mind would play out dozens, if not hundreds of scenarios in her dreams, with her mind as a detached observer, watching the outcome of the plan, and all the permutations.  Being able to use this ability gave her a reputation as a tactical genius.  That dream had a feeling of a memory, something that had occurred, something she'd already done.  "But what?"  Misato said quietly, "And why?"

     Nabiki savored the end of another school day and felt ambivalent about being refused EVA testing, as she walked into the apartment she shared with Ritsuko-sensei, Ranma-kun and Roku-kun, Boy had that ever blown all out of expectations.  She didn't announce herself.  Ranma and the Doctor were at late testing with Asuka, Shinji and Rei.  Dr. Akagi had dismissed her and Jeff, after it was confirmed their sync rates were the two lowest of all six pilots.  Jeff had simply wandered off, while she had caught a ride home with a NERV car.  She was surprised to see her roommate already home, sitting on the upper bunk wearing shorts and a T-shirt, That looked like they'd been slept in, she thought.  It amazed her that the boy who insisted on wearing a three-piece suit to school, and kept it clean no matter what happened around him, managed to look instantly rumpled in anything else he wore.

     She was about to hail him, when she saw he was crying, a large book clutched to his chest.  No sobs, no sounds, just head bowed, occasional tears rolling down his face, his eyes squeezed shut.  She hadn't made enough noise to attract his attention.  She retreated to the living room, then thought better of it, and went to the kitchen.  Sitting out of sight on the floor.  She removed her ever-present notebook, and quickly sketched the description of the book she'd seen him holding, and a note to investigate it later.


     The little man looked at the gutted cat. Toodles had been an old cat, he rationalized, he'd tried to make his pet's passing as painless as possible.  SEELE was offering enough money to retire on, he could always get another cat.

     The gate opened, powered by the lifeforce of the animal, he'd been told a child would be better, but he hadn't been able to find one quickly.  The huge bear of a man stepped through, leading his followers.

     The little man was practically dancing with glee, "General Tembris, I am so pleased to finally meet you.  I think we can assist each other."

     The General regarded his Waking World counterpart with undisguised contempt, which the little man seemed to miss completely.

     Ranma laid on the table in the medical lab, at least they'd left him a towel to cover himself.  They had released Shinji, Asuka and Rei to go home, he had to stay behind.  He'd watched Maya and Nancy using calipers and tape measurers to measure everything, from his skull dimensions to the arch of his teeth.  Finally they had reached his feet, measuring from the heel to the arch, to the big toe.  It isn't as painful as the range of motion experiment they did on him and her, a few days ago: 'How far can you move yourself, how far can you move without pain.'  Or as embarrassing, they needed DNA samples, Nancy, Lt. Thompson, had gotten that.  He'd protested, and been told Shinji had been similarly sampled, and so had Davis.  Then they turned her into a girl, and took other samples, by scraping inside her, very gently.  Ranma wasn't sure how anything could embarrass him after those two experiences.

     "Well, Mr. Saotome, we're all done with that part of the experiment," Nancy told him.

     "Can I leave?" Ranma eagerly asked.

     "I'm afraid not," Ritsuko entered with a cart with two large metal cans on it, "That's only the first part of the experiment.  This part might actually interest you."

     I don't see how, Ranma didn't say.

     Ritsuko took a small bottle out of the metal can, it had an eyedropper in it, "This is normal saline solution, completely harmless.  Think of it as artificial tears.  Open your eyes, hold your lower lids down."

     Ranma did as ordered, he still flinched as the cold liquid hit his eyes.  He blinked, shook his head.  He took the wash cloth she offered to blot his face.

     "That wasn't so bad?" Ritsuko asked, Ranma glared at her.  "Well that was cold water, and it had no effect."

     "I'm cured!?" he asked delightedly.

     "No, I'm sorry, but cold liquids have no effect on your eyes.  I wouldn't recommend trying to deflect liquids that way, but, open you mouth."

     Ranma did, tasted the icy cold salty water.

     "You might simply swallow the liquid, as long as you know it's safe," Ritsuko told Ranma, "Evidently cold liquids inside you have no effect either."

     Well, that's something, Ranma thought, "What if it isn't safe?"

     "Don't let it hit you, you're going to hate this next part," Ritsuko told him.

     The Meliorist stalked through the Dreamlands palace of Kuranes, in Celephais.  None of the knights wanted to face her rage.  She composed herself as she let the seneschal announce her to the King and Court.

     "The Meliorist, Asuka Soryu Langley, General of the Red Dragons, Lion of Celephais, King's Medal for Valor, Ulthar Gold Sunburst . . . "

     She let the list of awards and honors wash over the court.  She locked eyes with King Kuranes, he knew she needed the time to calm down, and it also gave lie to the slurs that had made her so angry.

     "And the Pilot of EVA Unit 02," the seneschal gave her a slight smile, they were aware of things occurring in the Waking World.

     "You are welcome here," the King said, gestured her forward.

     "My thanks, your Highness.  Blessings on this place, and all who dwell and deal here in peace and honesty.  Now I must ask, where is that one who has rarely dealt in peace or honesty?"

     "General Tembris's allegations have been investigated, and again found without merit," the King assured her, "Walk with me," he commanded.

     She nodded and followed, the court murmured at the closeness of the bond.

     "Your knighthood was never in any danger, there was no need for you to respond, although you'll probably pass the courier actually carrying the summons, on your way back.  But he has vanished," the King laughed, "Understandable, considering both you and the Dragon are after his head, he must have gone into hiding.

     The Meliorist nodded, "I am willing to get my vengeance second-hand, please sire, don't risk your guards or knights bringing him in for a challenge, as long as you understand that if the dragons catch him beyond the River Cities, they won't hesitate either."

     The King agreed, they walked in silence for a while, "So what are you doing in the Waking World?"

     "Fighting and training mostly," the Meliorist told him, "It isn't easy."

Admiral Simson's Edge

     The house in Kyoto was small by American standards, but his daughter and her husband loved it.  His instinct as a father, was to send both of them back to the United States, and safety.  But his instincts as a military man, told him that he needed them close, but not too close.  Besides, if he didn't win this war, there might be no safe place left on this planet, maybe not in all Creation.

     "Father, mother," the frail, flame-haired woman greeted him and his wife, his second daughter.  Polio and rheumatic fever had sapped the strength the little girl had once had, she would give him no grandchildren, not here anyway.  It pained him to know that four healthy, happy children heard tales of their seafaring grandfather, and they could never meet.  Neither the Admiral, nor his wife, were Dreamers.

     "Admiral," the small swarthy man approached, offered his hand, which the Admiral shook.  When the Admiral had met the man a few years earlier, a mere Army Air Corp Captain, he'd never understood how such an `unhandsome` man had so quickly and completely captured his daughter's heart.

     "I'm not in civvies for my health, Lieutenant - "

     "Daddy!" she said in the tone of disgusted daughters the world over, "If you walked in without any shirt, I'd expect to see 'Admiral' and your three stars tattooed on your chest.  Besides, it is business, we called you, remember?"

     He nodded.  The unlikely pair had courted for an indecently short time, and married.  Less than a year and a half ago, he'd learned why, and nearly made his daughter a widow.  The man had asked a very simple question about Asuka Soryu Langley, while the British were putting together an operation to get her and Unit 02 away from what was left of the Germans, and the approaching Russians.  An operation so secret, that almost no one knew about it, except the British who carried it out, the American officers who debriefed Anna Alice, and his son-in-law, who was Stateside inspecting radial engines for the Army Air Force, and therefore shouldn't have had the slightest inkling.

     Under arrest, and under truth serum, the then-Major revealed a lot more than how he knew.  Enough to reveal that he was an invaluable asset, the Admiral had covered up the arrest and the interrogation as war jitters, a funny coincidence.  Like the poor crossword puzzle maker arrested for putting 'Overlord' and 'Utah' in one of his puzzles prior to D-day at Normandy.

     The four people moved into the drawing room, closed the door.  This room had no windows, no entry or exit of any kind, except the one door.  Only a locked desk, and a table with three chairs stood in the room, not even a mouse could sit in that room undetected.  The man, a Lt. Colonel looking after supplies for the Occupation now, pulled a map from a hidden drawer in his desk, and put it on the table that dominated the room.  Everyone sat or stood around it.  The Admiral had never understood why this man wasn't in cartography school, he hand-drew the finest maps the Admiral had ever seen, and two other people agreed with him.  They had the wisdom to make him their chief cartographer.

     "The Meliorist left about two days ago, the Dragon took her directly to Ulthar and then to Celephais."  He indicated the locations on the map, a map of a land far `realer` to the younger pair than the Waking World, "General Tembris has been making noise again about casting her out of the knightly orders, 'Expunging her stain on our good name!'  A fair number of German knights are getting that kind of persecution, but after Tembris's failed assassination attempt, he's trying to make sure she can't bring charges against him." 

     "Why doesn't somebody just kill him, and get it over with?" the Admiral asked.

     "There are rumors that is exactly what the Dragon had planned.  Except the day he returned, he got a report from a spy, and he took off within the hour.  I've never seen him that shaken up, and nobody knows why, or will admit to knowing."

     "What do you mean, Anthony?" his wife, Susan, asked her son-in-law, "Are they keeping it a secret, or hiding their ignorance."

     "My best guess, mother," his daughter told them, "Is whatever the report was, it only made sense to the Dragon, and he swore everyone else to secrecy, without revealing what he knew, or what it meant.  The Dragon often plays things close to the vest.  Even Alwyk and Altara didn't know, and none of the other dragons could keep up with him.  He outpaced all of them by the time he was, feet-wet?  Over the ocean."

     "Yes, that's the phrase," the Admiral admitted, "What course?" he looked closely at the map.

     "Assuming he didn't outrun his pursuers, and change course when he was out of sight."  Anthony drew his finger across the map, "He could be headed for Sarkomand or Inganok, but I'd guess the Plateau of Leng.  If I was going way out on a limb, the Valley of Spiders, or the Prehistoric Monastery, would be my guess."

     "Why there?" the Admiral had to accept that these places were as real and pivotal in this war, as any place he could go and touch, and possibly, just as deadly.

     "If I didn't want someone going somewhere, those would be on the top of my list."

     The Admiral sat, considered, there was almost nothing he could do.  There was absolutely nothing he could do without revealing this intelligence source, and neither of these two would act to betray their patrons on either side of the divide.  "I thought you said the Dragon confronted the Spider-God, and beat him."

     "No sir, I said he met with him, exactly what happened is unknown.  The Dragon is sensitive to his troops' feelings about dealing with the Great Old Ones, even if he could have eaten that one alive.  He may growl and bluster, but he tries to make everyone believe it's an act, how a dragon is supposed to act, not the real him."  Anthony stared at the map, considering something, "He also could have headed into the Eastern Blank lands, or to another star.  No one knows."

     "Anything else?" the Admiral asked.

     "Tyler and Carey send their love, James announced that 'No vessel of that size could ever be constructed, I'm too old for fairytales,' he's going through that phase," his daughter told her father.

     "And Bea got her commission," Anthony told him, "Lieutenant of Horse Artillery."

     "Following in her grandfather's footsteps," Susan teased him, "She's probably filled with barely workable ideas of how to do things better."

     The Admiral blushed at that, he was a maverick too, came up through the ranks.  He remembered the 90-day wonders who ate, drank, and slept the manual, and their horror when he didn't.  Chiefs, and ex-Chiefs knew better.  "Other than that?"

     "No," his daughter told him.

     Shinji walked among the temples and small shops, down a dirt road that had wandered through the forests and hills.  It was like a bonsai garden, enlarged to human scale.  "And I spent all that time just riding the train, around this place and around."  He smiled at that.  He'd been shocked the first time he'd seen Rei waiting for him with a picnic lunch, and the train out of service.

     He blushed at the thought of their first `date`.  The two of them enjoying the lunch under the cherry trees, saying nothing, later she'd wanted to see how the locomotive worked.  They'd spent hours lighting a coal fire, and getting up enough steam to actually get the train moving.  Then they got filthy recoaling the tender.

     It had been a lot of fun.  He wondered why she wasn't here.  Probably doing something for my father, he thought.  He was vaguely surprised that he hadn't populated the villages and towns he'd passed through.  There were animals, birds and bugs, the shops were stocked, the streets clean and the buildings repaired, but never any people.  No.  I came here to hide from people.  If I put people in here, they'd be mean to me.  He walked on, examining his handiwork, and feeling absurdly pleased by it.  It was his, he'd created it, all of it.  As odd as it was, it all seemed to work.

     "Are we done?" Ranko asked Ritsuko.  They'd been in the medical lab for hours and hours, it seemed like days, and days, and days.

     "Aside from the measurements of your female form, yes," Ritsuko told her enthusiastically.

     Why didn't you just say 'no'? Ranko wondered.

     "At least you know the temperature that activates and deactivates your curse."

     I only had to sit here while you dripped water on me for three hours, Ranko thought, "Of course I'll always know the temperature of water coming at me."

     "At least you know the amount that creates the change," Ritsuko said defensively.

     "Doc, I wouldn't know half a millimeter - "


     "Whatever, except it isn't much."  Ranko couldn't manage to gather any enthusiasm over this, sitting almost naked in a lab for hours.  The hope of a cure held out, and ripped away with almost no concern for his feelings.

     "Ranma, these experiments are important.  They'll help us discover the nature of your curse."

     When you find a cure, then I'll be enthusiastic, Ranko noted the return of Maya and Nancy, and their measuring tools, "I'll let you do this, and I don't complain."  She was tired, hungry, and these exams did nothing she understood, and they went on for hours.  Hours she could be practicing, hours she didn't have to be stuck as a girl.

     Ritsuko sat in her lab and looked over the data.  She had bolted and  locked the door, she didn't want anyone walking in on her.  She didn't like lying to Ranma, but she could never tell him the truth.  I'm using you for my salvation, and I may have to deny you what you think is yours, she thought that would go over well.  The synthesis from his and `her` blood samples was five times more effective than any extract she'd ever tested.  The pain went away faster, and the loss of mental acuity was almost unnoticeable.

     She looked at the violet liquid, she was glad his blood was the key element.  She could imagine the protests if his or `her` gametes had been the key.  She knew he was growing more comfortable with the transformation, and she knew she had the Commander's orders not to actually research a cure, none of that made her feel any better about her activities.

     But when it came down to his comfort, versus her survival, the choice was obvious.  She could try to make the other aspects of his life more pleasant.  She just wished she had enough faith in him and his honor, to let him make the decision, she suspected how he'd decide.

     "Still, I cannot take the chance," she said as she made the injection, the pain was a sharp stab, and over in seconds, instead of a dull, screaming agony that lasted nearly an hour.  The results would last for nearly a week, instead of a day or two.  During that time, she'd have to watch Ranma go through the uncertainty of his or her day, that pain never seemed to go away.

     Hiroko looked up at the apartment window, the lights were still on, she'd seen Dr. Agaki and Saotome-san drive into the lot in her car.  Hiroko had walked by the door to Akagi-sensei's apartment, enjoyed the delicious smells coming from within.  She'd stood there a few moments, wondering what it must be like, to be with them, trading insults, but still affectionate, eating the cooking she smelled, sleeping together, sharing a bathroom.  Then her nerve failed before she could so much as knock on the door, so she slunk away in shame, both from having come here, and for having turned away without doing what she'd come here for.  She hadn't planned to profess her love, like in a bad shojo story.  The boss would never tolerate such cowardice, not in one that close to her.  But she, at least, wanted to see her boss's home.

     Considering Nabiki-san had seen her apartment already, it seemed strange she barely knew where her boss lived.

     I am going to get in so much trouble! she thought of her family's reaction to her sneaking away, They probably think I'm seeing a boy, . . . or worse.  Her mother had been suspicious of the groceries she'd been bringing home.  She'd explained she'd gotten a job with NERV, Kamis only know what they think I'm doing!

     "You should have gone up."

     The voice made Hiroko jump.  She turned around to face Rei, "You frightened me."

     "You should have gone in," Rei repeated, her expression never changed.

     Most of the people in class, in all of Ayanami-san's classes, thought she was creepy.  But since the other pilots had arrived, she was different around them.

     "She'd - I'd never, I couldn't - "

     "Why?" Rei interrupted her stammering denials.

     "I'm a girl, so is she," Hiroko told Rei.

     "And?" Rei asked, as if it wasn't perfectly obvious.

     "I don't want her as a . . . well you know, and she loves Saotome-san, and Raccoon-san is always with her, so I . . . "

     Rei took one step, was now inches from Hiroko's face, stared into her eyes with those red eyes.  "And?" she sounded slightly miffed.

     Hiroko had no answer, she looked away, hung her head.

     "Then you will die lonely," Rei told her, eliciting a flash of anger from Hiroko.  Rei continued in a softer tone, "There is a problem.  There is a solution.  Work through the fear."

     Hiroko nodded, anything to get away from the strange girl.  She watched Rei standing there, staring at her, as she retreated.  She did wonder why Rei was outside the boss's apartment, Instead of Shinji-san's.

     They were in the dojo, in dreams again.  This time Ranko had formed it and was waiting for Raccoon.  Her sense of conquest and control vanished as the lessons began again.

     Raccoon had a firm grip on the cat, as Ranko edged toward it, she reached out a hand.  Raccoon had assured her that the cat wouldn't hurt her.  She wondered if that was due to his AT field, or the cat's nature, or both.

     "Stop," Raccoon ordered.

     Ranko was glad to follow that order, the cat mewed quietly, Ranko still had the impression that it was disappointed in him.  Raccoon reformed the cage and put the cat inside.  It seemed to take this treatment with resignation.

     "I could have done it," Ranko told him.

     "Not when you were going from white to purple and back, with each step," he replied, "It took a long time to get your fear, it will take some time to unlearn it."

     "What do you know about dating?" Ranko asked.  Secretly pleased she'd thrown her mentor for a loop.

     "A bit, are you asking for yourself, or Ranma?" he smiled at her.

     Ranko wanted to pound that smile down his throat, "Both, I guess.  What should a girl expect, what should a guy do?"

     "Too bad you can't use the curse everybody talks about," Raccoon lamented, "You'd be the one person who could really explain it, to both sides."

     Ranko shook her head at that, the idea of actually using the curse that way, gave her the creeps, it would make her, him, a real pervert.  She could charm people, girls mostly as Ranma, guys and some girls as Ranko, but it wasn't the same.

     "I guess you could find out what interests the other partner, find things that you both like, do them.  Shinji and Rei just sit together quietly, I can only guess what Misato and Kaji do, I don't think it's talking.

     That was one the great mysteries around NERV, both denied they were doing anything, except Kaji would disappear and Misato would come home very late.  Ranma hadn't considered the problem important enough to follow either of them at night, to see what really happened.

     "Typically, there's a place in public where some privacy can be expected, a play, a movie, a dance, you'd be a good dancer.  Then dinner or a snack, and then, who knows."

     "That's not very helpful," Ranko lamented.

     "Take him to a fencing match, or a gymnastics meet," Raccoon suggested, "Just remember not to let him challenge the participants."

     "Him, who?" Ranko asked.

     "Never mind," Raccoon smiled at her again, "There's one thing I do need to talk to you about."  An image of an anthropomorphic winged ant appeared.

     "Byakhee," Ranko hissed, then blinked, How did I know that?!

     "Nyogtha and Rhan Tegoth knew," Raccoon explained, "You're going to have to accept that their knowledge is part of you.  The battles we'll be in, will require you bring everything to the table, no matter how uncomfortable it is.  No matter how icky, frightened or confused it makes you feel."

     Is he talking about the Great Old One's in my head, or the curse? Ranko wondered, Or both.  "I won't do spells, that's too horrible," she rubbed her chest, remembering the feeling of Ranma having his heart crushed inside his chest.

     "You'll still need to know what it feels like, and how to counter it," Raccoon retorted, "Unless you've got another answer?"

     "No, not really," Ranko admitted. I've got to find one.

     Captain Ramsey was waiting for the Admiral as he and his wife boarded the plane back for Tokyo.

     "Pleasant trip, Admiral?" his flag Captain asked.

     "Family is very important," he replied.

     "You look worried, sir."

     "Just something new I have to worry about," he replied as he climbed the stairs to the plane, "And after a few hours and a good meal, you're reminded that the rest of the world doesn't know about the war being fought under their noses."

     "Yes, sir."

     Simson didn't like holding things back, but his children would never trust or cooperate with anyone except him, and there were things he and Ramsey shared he'd never mention to others.  All of it compartmentalized and secret, even from his superiors, who often had no need or desire to really know.

School Mafia

     Nabiki and Jeff were walking home after school when the limousine pulled in front of them, and a second car pulled in behind.  Nabiki tensed, not knowing what to expect.  Several men with guns got out of the car, followed by an older, gray-haired man climbing out of the limo.

     "I believe you will come with us," the old man said.  Nodding meaningfully at the armed men surrounding them, none had drawn their weapons, but that was a mere formality.

     Nabiki glanced at Jeff, who shrugged, surrender now gave a chance of survival later.  Security wasn't doing anything.  Jeff offered his arm, which Nabiki took. "You have a plan?" she asked in German, as she climbed into the limo.

     "Staying alive," he replied in German, as he climbed in behind her.

     That's really helpful, she considered, as the old man climbed into the limousine after them, and closed the door.

     "You are in no danger," the old man assured them.

     He didn't say yet, Nabiki considered that understood, hopefully Ranma or one of the others saw what happened, and reported it.  Jeff's calm demeanor infuriated her, armed men had just kidnaped them, and he acted like they were on a Sunday drive with old friends.

     Old Misha had been selected for this assignment because of his political reliability, and his long experience in the Dreamlands.  An adventurer and spell caster, it was assumed, that of all the agents State Security had in the Dreamlands, Misha was the best teacher for the young pilots of the new Ogromniys.

     He'd never expected the byakhee to have descended in such numbers, to overpower the guard force and spirit the five fledgling Dreamers away.  He'd made pursuit of course, a flying crystal sailing ship, with a picked crew.  With moonraker sails, as fast as the wind, he'd once proudly claimed.  Now, that was the problem.  Time and again, the byakhees' spells would snatch the wind from the ship's sails, and he would lose time breaking the spells.  They would pull a little farther away with each attempt, and they had others waiting to take up the burdens, so Misha pursued a nearly tireless enemy across Cerenarian Sea dodging the grazing Cloudbeasts and other avian troubles.

     "There, sir," the lookout pointed to the speck of darkness against the clouds and blue sky, that for almost two hours, only his sharp eyes had been able to pick out.

     Misha studied the seemingly endless clouds for what had so troubled the young sky sailor.  "Bozhei moi!" he breathed, "That's pursuing us?"

     "Yes, sir.  It will overtake us in three hours," the lookout reported.

     "How soon will our quarry make landfall?" Misha demanded of the navigator.

     "Ten hours, unless they land at the Nameless Rock, then three, three and a half," the academician turned skyfarer told him.

     "If that dragon overtakes us before we can reach the pilots . . . Iron Felix and Dzerzhinskiy Square will be the least of our worries," Misha admitted.

     "He would still try to interrogate a pile of dragon shit, just to be thorough," the navigator, an analyst for State Security in the Waking World agreed.

     "Sir, wouldn't it have descended?  To come after us?" the lookout asked, dragons were rarely enough seen, rumors about them were vastly more common.  "Perhaps we could bribe it, somehow."

     That earned him chuckles from the more senior crew.

     Misha gave him a grandfatherly smile, "What exactly would we offer?  A king's ransom in rubies.  A truck load of gold?  Perhaps a dozen nubile virgins?  Dream your dreams, but remember even here, there is reality."

     The young man returned to the crow's-nest to avoid further laughter, Misha was left with the problem of what to do, even if the dragon didn't attack, did he have enough men to snatch back the pilots from the byakhee?  Worse yet, if they sold them to the Moonbeasts, they'd be facing an entire army.  He almost wished the dragon would catch him first.

     Admiral Simson had just returned from Kyoto when he got the news that sent him running into General Tomlinson's office, commander of one of the U.S. Army's Armored divisions.

     "You don't have to tell me," Tomlinson said, "The FUBENS(2) screwed the pooch, again.  Let Tendo and Davis get snatched right off the street.  One of their school chums actually called it in, he even got pictures of the cars and the kidnappers.  My recon people are processing the film now."

     Simson visibly relaxed, "I keep forgetting, we do have some competent people around here."

     "Considering the security arrangements, I wouldn't get my hopes up," Tomlinson joked, "Have you considered letting the Army, or the Marines," he said the last with mock distaste, "See to their security?"

     "I can see that: surround each pilot with a company of Marines.  Supposedly they need to keep a `common touch`, at least that's what that headshrinker Fuyutsuki says.  Unfortunately, Dr. Samuels agrees with him."

     "Paul," the General began, "Your experience with security is limited to guarding ships in port, or battle groups at sea.  Leave the arrangements to someone with a little experience."  Tomlinson had been an M.P., before transferring to Armor, and never looking back.  Until now.

     "Throw the Army a bone, you mean," Simson smiled at that.

     "Oh, I'll let your Marines play too, have to be ecumenical about this, or we'll have Marines having crying jags all over the place, might scare the locals.  Besides, I wouldn't mind Marine Corps close air support if things get sticky, not to mention help from those oversized bathtub toys you've got floating in the harbor."

     "Okay, what do you propose?"

     "Let's get Tokyo P.D. in here, to identify who these jokers are.  Then I send a few Chaffees and Sherman Flame tanks, to real politely ask them to explain what they're doing.  I could use a company of your best sharpshooters while you're at it."

     "Done, what about later?"

     "Let's worry about later, later," Tomlinson picked up the phone and began issuing orders.

     The Scholarly Dragon's speed had carried him through the Dreamland's skies, until he had overtaken and passed the crystalline air-sailer, he didn't have time to trifle with them.  Or the hordes of byakhee he passed through.  They were wise enough to simply make a hole, and let him through.  He saw what they were carrying, he could have attempted a rescue, but that wouldn't have dealt with the real problem.

     There ahead, dozens of the Moonbeasts' cumbersome slave aerial-ships, from their base on the Nameless Rock.  He'd heard a Dreamer had cleaned this place out, with an army of ghouls and nightgaunts.  Too bad they hadn't held it, he thought, as the ships deployed their 'anti-dragon' weapons.  He laughed, the systems were very good, and clever, which is why every dragon in the Red Dragons practiced against them.  Always compare yourself to the best, he thought as he gained altitude, and swung wide to attack from behind, Then you know if you're any good.  He would let them do most of the work, after all, all he had to do was prevent the transfer.  Once the byakhee realized their clients were too busy dying to pay them, they would become far more amenable.  "Surrender or die," he rumbled to himself, and watched the first net pass near him, he caught it, and quickly accelerated to foul the sails of the lead ship.

     This is always a good game, he thought, The arrogant against the clever.  He also reminded himself that those two appellations could quickly reverse themselves, if he wasn't careful.

     Nabiki was not pleased about how vulnerable she felt.  Despite the lack of armed men in the car, she knew they were only a moment away.  Despite Ranma's fervent belief that Martial Arts trumped any weapon yet known to man, she was not so delusional.  That the one person she expected to be shooting flames and tossing cars around to protect her and himself, was sitting watching the scenery, and discussing the Japanese tea ceremony with their chief kidnapper, didn't fill her with warm, soothing thoughts.  On the other hand, having Ranma raise a fuss and get shot, would have been worse, she reminded herself, tried to remain calm and collected, or at least appear to be.

     They arrived at a large house with a traditional wood and stone fence around it.  Trees grew behind, giving the impression that the top of the fence was an immense bonsai garden.  The lawn was neatly kept, it hardly looked like the place a group of kidnappers, or murderers would use.  The man, surrounded by large bodyguards, at the end of the driveway dispelled that illusion.

     The old man gestured for them to get out of the car.  Neither of them were frisked, the first mistake she'd seen them make.

     Or maybe they don't expect us to be armed or dangerous, Nabiki hoped, all they needed was a few mistakes on the bad guys' part, and a little luck.  And a miracle or two, she added.

     "Mr. Shimurata," Jeff bowed, "I was wondering when you'd ask us over. I must apologize for our rudeness in not bringing a welcoming gift."

     Terrific, Nabiki thought, as she straightened up from her bow, He's in `Kuno-mode` again.

     "You disrupted our operations," the man said, trying to get the conversation back on rational ground, "Operations that would have been very beneficial to Japan."

     "May I?" Jeff asked her, she considered deeply, nodded, let her subordinate field the question.  It also confused the yakuza, That's the only people they could be.  'An American deferring to a Japanese girl?' she could almost hear them asking themselves.

     "The destruction of Japan would not have served your interests, not in the long-term," Jeff began.

     "So you killed not only your schoolmates, but their families as well?" oyabun Shimurata was aghast.  Nabiki was more so.

     Jeff shrugged, "Treason is treason, your country and mine have similar penalties.  There were better ways to deal with your concerns."

     Nabiki's blood ran cold, He said 'Killed'!  I only wanted them arrested, gotten out of the way.  But they're dead!  And he's acting like this is all a tea party!  He must have known what was going to happen!  Why didn't he tell me?  I could have found another way.  Nabiki glanced down at her shoes, to hide her expression, she'd tuned out the `discussion` between the other two, she'd caused people to die, she as much as killed them.  Why hadn't anyone told her this?

     She felt Jeff take her arm and lead her towards a small table.

     "Does she have a voice?" the question penetrated Nabiki's consciousness.

     "Actually, I'm a ventriloquist's dummy," Jeff said with all seriousness.  The oyabun nearly cracked a smile.

     "Only your chosen surrogates, were disrupted," Nabiki commented.  "My associate has already arranged, tutoring and study sheets," she added, "But there will be no more theft of answer sheets.  Photos and betting are still very profitable.  More so now, with the pilots at the school.  I think we can continue to do business."

     The oyabun asked, "Why should I agree?"

     Jeff looked at Nabiki, she nodded, "I can offer a gift, a demonstration of what friendship will benefit you, honored sir."

     Nabiki noted the interest on the oyabun's face, swiftly and skillfully hidden, but it had been there.  "I think we should offer him a powerful example," she told Jeff, who nodded.

     "Your wife suffers from polio," Jeff said, "I can cure her."

     Nabiki barely kept a straight face, the oyabun was shocked.  He realized he'd lost the advantage, but he still held some cards.

     "How do you know this?!" he demanded.

     "Research," Nabiki said quietly, "Do you agree to accept?" Raccoon, I hope you know what you're doing.

     The man sneered.

     He thinks we're lying! Nabiki thought, Well, time to educate you.  "Do you agree to let us gift you?"

     The man nodded, he was staring daggers at the two youths.  Nabiki was beginning to realize what a dangerous game she was playing.  If it didn't work, even if the man hadn't intended to kill them before, he was considering it now.  She also couldn't get away from the idea that the dethroned `mafia` had been killed, how many, were they just taken out and shot?  And why had she not heard any of this?  Not from Davis, not from Ritsuko, not from anyone at school?

     The woman was brought out in her walker.  Nabiki noted she was a pretty woman, careworn, but from the way she and her husband look at each other . . . If this works, we've got him, she thought, If this doesn't, we're dead.  Why doesn't that worry me more?

     Jeff stood, bowed, "I apologize in advance for your discomfort," he explained, "The nerves will all report in, what is normal sensation, you aren't used to, and it will be very distressing."

     She looked to her husband, who nodded, she agreed.

     Nabiki noticed the tension in the oyabun and his gunmen's faces, as she moved up to Jeff's side, as he knelt to touch the older woman's feet.

     Nabiki expected fireworks, a bright glow, something.  Instead the woman cried out and stood straight up.  Nabiki's shock wasn't too great to keep her from catching her, before she could topple, She's wobbly, Nabiki thought while supporting the oyabun's wife, But she is able to remain upright, Nabiki and the woman remained that way for at least a minute, the woman sobbing hysterically.  Nabiki motioned the stunned men forward.  The oyabun took his wife back in the house.  Nabiki stared in shock at Jeff, who seemed to be unable to stand up himself.  Okay, it's real, she hadn't been absolutely certain until now, she wasn't sure what to do next.  She had proof, and a totally inappropriate setting to begin demanding answers and explanations.  She had to stay cool, nonchalant, and in control, At least on the surface, she admitted to herself, I'll browbeat the answers out of you when we get home! she silently vowed.

     "Listen," Jeff told her, "Ground vibrations too."

     She heard odd sounds, "Those are tanks," she said, and looked around, "And there are snipers on some of the roofs.  I think we've better tell them we're all right, before they start shooting," she told the old man, and the gunman who were all realizing how outnumbered they were.

     "Good plan."  Jeff still seemed unable to stand.

     The old man quickly led her to the gate, she opened it just before a very large American soldier knocked.

     "Miss Tendo?  Are you all right?" the man lowered his hand, gazed inside, to plan how and where to assault, to rescue the two pilots, if necessary.

     Nabiki noted the small tanks not quite aiming their guns at the gate, and the tank commanders leaning on their machineguns, with the air of men who could wait forever, Waiting to attack, or fall back, Nabiki thought, It's all the same to them.  "We're just fine, making some new friends.  You are our friends?" she asked the old man, who wisely nodded, "Thank you for caring," she told the soldier, "We'll be out in a few moments.  We will need a ride back."  She closed the door before the man could reply, turned to the older man, she now realized he was the oyabun's majordomo, and possibly the woman's father or grandfather, "They worry so, the dears."

     The man seemed as shocked as his boss had been, she realized he was thinking he was dealing with two sorcerers, not one.  Nabiki was realizing that in Nerima, she made up for a lack of offensive power by bluff and guile, but here, she could call down Hell, Death and Destruction beyond the dreams of any of the martial artists, for real.  She frankly wanted to go back to the old system, it was more responsibility than she wanted, she held lives in the balance, the lives of people she didn't even know.  And she was terribly uncomfortable with that.

     Nabiki returned to the table, helped herself to some of the tea.  The warmth kept her from shivering, and her grip on the cup gave her something else to focus on.

     Jeff clumsily ambled over, sat next to her.

     "What did you do?" she asked in German.

     "Magic," Jeff admitted in German, "Transference healing."

     She was amazed, "So you weren't lying when you told Ritsuko in St. Louis, you are a wizard."

     "No, I wasn't, I don't lie," Jeff admitted.

     Nabiki knew that could easily be a lie, If it's true . . .  she abandoned the speculation, it led down too many dark paths.

     Misha wasn't sure what the Hell was going on, so he ordered the sky ship to turn into the wind to slow down, while they shortened sail.  The lookout had reported the byakhee had slowed and were milling about.  Something else was going on, on the far side of them, but he couldn't see through the mass.

     "We could strike while they are distracted," the navigator told him, both knew he was joking, but the byakhee had lost interest in them as well, as they closed in slowly.

     "Be ready for anything," Misha ordered.  What worried him the most, was that they would put on a sudden burst of speed while he had many of his ship's sails furled.  He didn't like when his enemies did the unexpected.

     The Dragon was having a fine time.  Two of the Moonbeasts' ships were on fire, and a half-dozen were fleeing back to the Nameless Rock, to escape or summon reinforcements.  Only a few stalwarts were still trying to make the pick up, probably they had paid earnest money, or whatever, to the byakhee or whoever had summoned them.  And people think Dragons and Scotsmen are cheapskates! the Dragon thought, "There comes a time to cut your losses and run!" he bellowed at them in their own language.

     The Moonbeasts may have wanted to keep fighting, but their slaves had other ideas, like survival.  Moonbeasts began dropping from all the remaining ships, and the few that weren't tangled together, broke away and fled.

     Neither Saotome would approve, the Dragon turned his attention to the byakhee, now that they were caught between two forces, instead of himself and the Russian captain being trapped.  I shouldn't have to eat more than half of them to get them to be reasonable. Byakhee were a special treat, like fugu to humans, a lovely tingle all the way down, but without any risk of paralysis, and the dragons made sure the byakhee knew it.

     The oyabun returns to the table where both Nabiki and Jeff are sipping tea.  Jeff pours him a cup, while the oyabun explains his doctor has pronounced his wife cured.  He is having trouble processing it all.

     "Does this indicate the benefits of a partnership?" Nabiki asks, setting her tea aside, and staring at the man.

     "Would you be willing to heal my daughter as well?" the man asks hopefully.

     "I apologize," Jeff bows, "There is a limit to how many times I can perform the rite in a given time period.  However, if you should consider an appropriate cultural outing, and dinner, on Sunday, I should be able to deliver on my promise."

     The man bows low, "The school is yours, is there anything you need of me."

     "Excuse us," Nabiki says, takes Jeff a small distance away.  "We have to ask for something, something big, or he'll lose face," she tells him in German, "Just follow my lead."

     They return to the table, "I and my associate may need to 'expedite' things through customs, and through the bureaucracy, your expertise in such matters would be greatly appreciated."

     He bows and agrees.  "I fear your friends are becoming impatient.  Please go, with my thanks, and humble apologies for having treated you poorly."

     Laying it on a little thick, Nabiki thinks, Well his wife and daughter returned to health by one, and a couple of companies of tanks and sharpshooters called off by the other.  Maybe he isn't overreacting.  Nabiki is not at ease with that thought, and the implications.

     The two are escorted back to the gate.  The soldiers are still there, still waiting, the two pilots are led through the curious soldiers to a command car, that takes a place in the center of a convoy back to Dr. Akagi's apartment.  The soldiers make them lie down on the floor, so a sniper can't get a clean shot at them.  Nabiki isn't happy about that, either.  She glares at the accepting expression on Jeff's face, a few inches from her own.

     "Why didn't you tell me about the deaths?  Did you know?" she asks as they ride back to the apartment.

     "I knew."

     "Did they get a trial, did they get any due process?" Nabiki demanded over the noise, "Or were they just dragged out into the street and shot?"

     "They received a swift trial, you are assuming the investigations weren't ongoing at the time of your intervention.  You've seen the incomplete sections of headquarters."

     She nods.

     "This isn't all about you, Miss Tendo.  There are tests that have not been done, there is data that wasn't transferred to NERV Massachusetts and NERV Bristol.  Information that might have saved some of the British pilots lost to Unit 03, it might have saved one or both of the American pilots.  What penalty is the appropriate levy for murder?  If things had happened differently, what is the punishment for Omnicide, the death of all?"

     Nabiki moves away from Jeff, she feels very cold.  She could appreciate his chutzpah, they need intelligence from many sources, and even criminals realize that you can't do business if you're dead.  But the idea that people would die because of what they, what she, had done, even if they deserved it, made her nauseous.

     She'd been amazed by the magic, and his overtness in using it.  Now she wants nothing to do with him, his easy condemnation of those who'd opposed them.  The ready acceptance of death in this world.

     "Here they come!" the lookout shouted.

     Misha stood behind an immense harpoon.  Several of the crew who were aircraft pilots in the Waking World had appreciated the skill of the battle, now the byakhee were approaching slowly, the few carrying the pilots were in front.  The huge creature circled lazily behind them.

     If they drop them, what then? Misha wondered, the much reduced force could still overwhelm his crew.

     "Stand ready, but stand easy," Misha ordered as the ant-like monsters dropped one, then another dazed pilot on the ship's deck, then dove for the sea far below.  Once all five were aboard, the byakhee seemed to be reassessing the situation, they could outwait the dragon.

     "Go home!" it ordered in tradespeech, the lingua franca of the Dreamland.  The message was quickly translated, the byakhee fled.  The dragon turned his attention to the ship and crew, "That goes for you as well.  Idiots, bringing such, here!  FOOLS!!" it roared the last, the entire ship moved from the force.

     Misha hadn't lived this long arguing with angry dragons, "Set course for Ulthar!  Get the pilots below!"

     "The steps!" the dragon corrected, "Do not bring them here again!  Or you will suffer!"

     Misha nodded, "Yes, Comrade Dragon."  He bowed to the scowling brute, frankly he thought it was a good idea, as they were taken below decks for dry clothes and a hot meal.  At least until they learned to conceal themselves from even this monster.

Secret Techniques

     Ranko looked at Nabiki, who'd just drenched her hand, "Akagi-sensei was right, 24C is the lower threshold," she said happily, "Next time don't bet against me."

     Ranko growled at her, as she preceded Nabiki out of Akagi-sensei's kitchen.  Nabiki had just gotten home, and was immediately picking on her, again.

     "Hello, Ranko-san," Davis entered the apartment, and started removing his boots.

     Ranko noted Nabiki slipped past her and shied away from him, They must have had another fight, she thought.

     He walked to the dining room table, and carefully spread out dozens of pieces of paper.  "We need a different table, so we don't have to close up our homework for dinner."

     Something had been bothering Ranma for several days, ever since he had been defeated in dreams.  "Uh, Raccoon, do you have some time?"

     "Sure," he looked up and smiled at her.

     She relaxed a bit, the smile was no where near what Toji, or even Shinji, gave her on a regular basis, and nothing like Nabiki's smile.  "What Ranma did that first fight, he said," she stopped, the stricken look on Raccoon's face worried her, "Doing something like it in dreams.  Do you think you could - "

     "Auugh!" Raccoon screamed, looked at the ceiling, "Can't you give me a break?!  What do you think I've been doing for the past few weeks?" he gestured at the papers.  He sighed, "Why do you think I've been researching?"

     Ranko retreated into the kitchen, as Raccoon grimaced and hit his head on the table a few times.  She and Nabiki were looking over the counter into the dining room.  "I was just asking."

     The GRU man looked at the motley collection of concrete and sheet metal huts, high in the Ural Mountains, the twin, parallel rail lines running through it.  Compared with the bustle of the shipyards trying to prepare naval vessels as carriers, the last major supply depot between Moscow and the facility, was nearly abandoned.  If he'd been human, he would have felt like screaming.  As it was, he looked at the laborers: convicts mostly, or ex-Wehrmacht; and searched for a way to get them to do their jobs in more than a half-hearted fashion.  Might as well wish that none of this was necessary, he looked over the sullen, frightened eyes of these people, he could understand why many considered humans little different from cattle.  He'd seen more intelligence and drive from things he'd eaten, than what he saw here, looking at him, Especially one.

     "We simply need more workers, Comrade Colonel," the Major commanding this rabble wheedled.  It was clear he thought of himself as much a convict as those working for him, and took as little pride in himself and his command.

     "I see a large number of men idle, I see the perimeter is not guarded, I see large amount of valuable State property left out in the open to rust.  That is what I see, Comrade Major."

     The little man paled and began dry washing his hands.

     The stench of fear from this fool sickened the GRU man, he wondered if killing and eating him on the spot would motivate the others.  The stomach upset from so much grease might actually be worth it.  An alarm interrupted his considerations, suddenly the little man beside him came to furious life.

     "That stupid Cossack!  Jumping at nothing again!" he bustled off to vent his fear and anger on a junior officer.

     The GRU man was not so sanguine, his hearing and eyesight were much better, and complacency did not blind him.  "Everyone to alert stations!  Issue rifles and ammunition to anyone able to fight!"

     "Comrade Colonel!" the Major was shocked, "Some of these men are criminals.  Some are Germans!"

     The GRU man was concentrating on one point in the sky, and what occupied it, "They are all humans, and if they want to live, they'll stand and fight!"

     The rest of the crowd watched the dim shapes getting bigger as the alarm was taken up.  Not crabs, nor scorpions, nor bats, but a weird mixture of all three.

     Mi-Go! the GRU man thought, wished for some real weapons instead of the rifle a sergeant handed him.  "Flamethrowers, or at least incendiary ammunition or tracers?!"

     The sergeant shook his head sadly, then went to arm the others.

     "Aim for their weapons first," the GRU man shouted, "Their bodies are resistant to bullets, their machines aren't!"  It might not do any good, it might save all of their lives.  He noted with satisfaction that none of the dreadful convicts, or the frightful Germans, was pointing his weapon anywhere but skyward.  A few light machine guns on the perimeter were already opening up.

     Twenty times their number, or a few flamethrowers, he thought, and wondered how the Americans and Japanese dealt with such things.

     The GRU `man` looked over his devastated command.  Convicts, misfits and Germans, he shook his head, The unwanted.  "You!" he pointed to a man, he didn't care who or what he was before, he'd led three counterattacks personally, and not from the very front, like the poor Cossack lieutenant, who was carefully added to the heap of corpses, or none at all, like their Major, whom they had thrown in a lime pit already.

     "Do you speak Russian?" he demanded, the man tried to stand, he waved him back down, A proud one.  "Can you not answer a simple question without saluting?"

     "Yes, I mean no, sir.  I speak good Russian," the man told him.

     "Gestapo, SS Trooper?" the GRU man asked.

     "Alpine Division," the man said tightly.  Still proud of what that meant.

     "Well, Captain, you are now a spy for the GRU, and a loyal servant of the Rodina, do you have any problem with that?"  Stalin can only kill me once, he thought as he surveyed the other prisoners and workers, no one seemed to resent the man's promotion, in fact they all seemed to think 'Better you than me.'

     "Is my job to kill these things?" the man asked.  There had been no reason to bury the enemy.  They moldered away within moments of death, leaving a putrid stench in the air, that not even the mountain winds could scour away.

     "Indirectly, I want a report on the reasons why this camp, which is a linchpin in the Rodina's attempt to destroy these things, could not be defended from a small raiding party."  He raised his voice, "Other commands have had to fight off hundreds of these things, and they succeeded."  He left out the last two attacks had cost nearly six battalions of tanks and almost an entire motor rifle division, losses they could ill-afford.  "If there are simple things to fix, part of your cover is to fix them," he told the man, who had already collected his cadre, Germans, Ukrainians, a few `politicals`, another Cossack.

     He let the man nod, then told the entire camp, "If any of you wondered why you are out here, instead of in the pleasant climes of Siberia," he let them laugh at that, "Somebody thought you could do the job.  You are still prisoners, but would you rather be prisoners," he gestured to where a makeshift flamethrower had incinerated the Mi-Go's only vehicle, "Or mulch?"

     "What are your orders?" the man said.

     "What is your name?" the GRU man demanded.

     The man smiled, "Piotr Ramius."

     "East Prussian?" the GRU man knew a fair number of Lithuanians had fled to Germany to escape Stalin, well this one was back.  "My first order is see to the wounded and the dead, get the defenses reestablished, they may come back.  I am going to find a radio and get some reinforcements up here."  He raised his voice again, "Then I'm going to find something to drink in this shithole!"

     More laughter, after that battle, he suspected everyone wanted to get drunk.  He headed off to the radio shed, he wondered what they had wanted.  They seemed to concentrate on the construction material.  Since the Mi-Go were intelligent and logical, they must have attacked what they thought was important.  Like the Germans bombing electrical plants, because that's where they were weak, and the Americans attacking `vital` industries and the British enemy morale, because that's what they were afraid of.  He was going to have to look at where they were vulnerable and what were the Mi-Go's vulnerabilities, Unless they were trying to steal cement and rebar, nails and wood?  That made no sense.

     "He still follows," the skyship's lookout reported.

     "The byakhee?" Misha saw the coastline and the Enchanted Wood approaching.

     "He ate them all, I think he knew I was watching."  The lookout climbed out of the crow's-nest.

     Misha noted the lookout was looking fairly green, as cruel as many of the `monsters` were, Misha knew what real monsters looked like.  "He was playing with his food?" Misha asked mildly, and was amused that the lookout rushed to the rail and threw up.  The Seven Hundred Steps, then to safer dreams, he'd make the recommendation himself.  With that monster taking such a personal interest, the pilots just weren't safe.

     The rushing wind tore at her skin and hair, the smoke from the stack made her cough.  Rei wasn't quite sure how she should react.  She had been 'visiting' Shinji-kun in his dreams lately.  It allowed them to be alone together, without the others interfering.

     Shinji-kun had wanted to be `adventurous`, so they were sitting atop the train as it raced along.  It made eating impossible, and talking difficult.  She wasn't certain if she should be frightened, she knew Shinji-kun wouldn't intentionally hurt her, but was he in control, as much as he thought/hoped he was?

     She sat next to him, holding his hand, he enjoyed it, and it gave her something else to focus on, rather than focus on the wind, smoke and speed.  He smiled at her.  She let the wind ruffle her hair, brush her skin.  She didn't like it too much, but she enjoyed being with Shinji-kun, doing something more risky.

     "I think we cannot eat lunch up here," she managed over the noise of the rails and engine.

     He nodded, the train slowed it's breakneck pace, the wind shifted, blowing the smoke away.  They were still covered in soot, but that was a nuance that hadn't been there before.  She wondered how much was the Second's training and how much was his natural talent.  She felt some jealousy at that.  The Second was not a good teacher, she was too harsh.  But Shinji-kun was a natural Dreamer, the same way he was a natural pilot.  That thought worried her.

     "How about now?" Shinji-kun asked her.

     She nodded, brushed the soot off her hands and the basket of food, and began carefully setting out the lunch.  It had been a successful pattern, she'd wanted to do something different from her ordinary life.  However, everyone else stayed away from her.  Until recently.  Shinji-kun took a wet cloth and dabbed gently at the soot on her face.  She wanted to stop him, but she dind't wnat to send him away, or make herself unwelcome here.

     She was still learning to set limits on the others' interaction with her.  Some was fine, even delightful.  Too much, and she wanted to do anything to drive them away, even Shinji-kun.  Finding the mix, and more importantly the signals to tell them to go, was proving more difficult than anything she'd ever done.

Opening Moves

     Rei studied the board.  After a week of watching Jeff playing chess, and then several days of her playing against him, she was playing a slower, more contemplative game.  School was over for the week, Dr. Akagi was collating the test results, she had until this evening.

     "You are playing differently," she told Roku-kun.  She had at least six possible moves, all of which were traps which would tear open and destroy her carefully constructed defense.  She tried to ignore the other pilots and a few of their circle members as she played, it was extremely difficult.

     She stared at the situation on the board, to ignore that she was again the center of rapt attention.  Even the Second was staring at her and the board.  Is the discomfort part of the greater game?  To disrupt my concentration? she glanced at Roku-kun as his eyes scanned the board.  Whatever she did, did he have a counter ready?  The others were silent, watching, waiting.  She nearly smiled at that, the Second was almost bursting to shout out advice, suggestions, warnings, but the `etiquette` of the game precluded that.  Nabiki had dragged the Fourth's female form back by her pigtail, with a hand clamped over the Fourth's mouth, to watch the game.  Nabiki and the Second had then glared the rest into silence.

     She decided on her move, made it, he made his move almost as a reflex, the Second gasped.

     "Sorry," Asuka apologized quietly.

     It was not a move she'd been expecting and she had to pause, concentrate on the board.  While I study the board, he studies it, so he can seem to instantly react to my move, to further distract me.

     She'd won the game on Thursday, and after school on Friday, but this was different.  She surveyed the board, the traps were still there.  She couldn't see what he was doing, other than luring her into a series of ambushes that would destroy her force, for little loss to his own.

     She looked at the Second, "Asuka, what do you suggest?"  By asking for advice, she was admitting defeat.  She couldn't see another alternative.

     "Resign, mate in six," the Second said grimly.

     Rei couldn't imagine surrender at this point, I still have almost two-thirds of my forces.  Yet she is so sure.  Rei wondered if the Second was trying to make her lose, but she had seen Asuka in her 'analytical' mode.  In that posture, Rei and the others could trust Asuka to be factual, if not always polite.  Rei set her king down, indicating surrender.

     "Thank you," she told Roku-kun.  She couldn't think of anything else to say.

     "You will accompany us on Sunday, won't you?" he asked in return.

     She had not considered it, neither Dr. Akagi nor the Commander had told her of anything requiring her attention, Dr. Akagi and her staff were going as chaperones.  The outing was with Shinji-kun, and all the other pilots.  The last part was the cause of her hesitation, she could see the necessity of Shinji-kun placating the Second, they lived together, and once placated, she would be quiet for a while.  She could not see the reasoning behind including the Fourth in on a trip to hear a concert, he would announce it was girly or boring, or some other nonsense.  And if forced, he would set out to ruin everyone elses' enjoyment, as he did in so many other things.

     "If my duties allow," she said, collecting the pieces . . . to her chessboard.  That also was new, something that was hers, not issued, not borrowed, abandoned or neglected.  The owner had transferred its title to her.  She carefully put it away.

     "Wait a minute, Wondergirl," the Second demanded, "Aren't you going to give someone else a chance."

     Rei stood, put a serious demeanor on, "No," and walked off to the general laughter of the pilots, even the Second chuckled.  Their circles were mystified by the reaction.

     Ranko was in a poor mood when she arrived at back at Dr. Akagi's apartment.

     "Problems?" Raccoon asked, "Dodging Toji again?"

     Ranko nodded, Ranma was still stuck as Ranko for until Sunday.  Unless NERV required Ranma.  Toji had located, her, after the chess game, and Asuka and Nabiki had seemed bound and determined to embarrass Ranko as much as possible.

     "I think I have a solution to one problem, and a problem I don't think you know you have," Raccoon told her, "There is a martial art technique you don't know, or you haven't shown me you know."

     "What is that?" she asked, she didn't believe Raccoon could know a martial arts technique she didn't.

     Raccoon stood, opened the closet, pushing the coats aside, "Actually I noticed this a while ago, but you were too skittish to test this.  If you please."

     Ranko noticed Nabiki had wandered in, to see the latest loony Raccoon idea.  She walked into the small area Raccoon had cleared, Raccoon squeezed in in front of her.  She was nervous about that.  She glanced over at Nabiki sitting at the dining room table, staring at them.

     "Assume there is a wall, instead of this opening, how would you fight someone?"

     Now that it was fighting, she ignored the close physical contact between them.  She tried a punch, kick, the coats and the close quarters hindered her a lot.  She tried to shove him away, the coats pushed him back at her, he tumbled at her feet.

     "I think I proved my point."  He crawled out, stood, and offered his hand.

     "I'm confused," Ranko said, walking out behind him.

     "I watched you and Tendo-san fight, and realized you have a minimum range, if someone gets within about three-quarters of a meter, you stop punching or kicking them.  Instead you do a sweep or throw.  If you are out in the open, where you both prefer to fight, so you can jump around, that's fine.  But - " he gestured at the closet.

     "In a phone booth, or a shower stall," Nabiki added.

     Ranko shuddered at the idea of Toji catching her in a shower stall, alone.  While Raccoon was wrong, Ranko could have pummeled him unconscious, but it would have taken a longer time than Ranko was comfortable with, and Toji might have fallen on her, not in front of her.

     "Try this, put your fists just below and on either side of the hollow of your throat.  Now strike using your elbow.  Now make an uppercut using your elbow."

     Ranko practiced the moves, it was clumsy, but she could adapt many of her strikes to this method.

     "Now if you can jump up, but not side to side, use your elbow to attack the collarbone.  This gives you a strike about 30 centimeters long, no more someone getting too close."

     It was hardly a `new` technique, but it was an important variation, she tried kicks, using her knee or upper leg.  Very useful.  "Okay, what's the price?"  She knew Raccoon never gave anything away, you had to earn it.

     "Just the way to put Toji off, hopefully for good," Raccoon told her, "One kiss, in front of the whole class."

     IS HE CRAZY?! Ranko shuddered at the thought of kissing Toji, ever, "I ain't doin' it, no way!  Pick something else!  No way am I kissing Toji!"

     "Who said one word about Toji?" Raccoon asked.

     Nabiki instantly burst out laughing, then Ranko realized what Raccoon was proposing.

     "It was your idea, you asked me about staging a fight."  Raccoon kept having to raise his voice over Nabiki's increasing laughter.  "Why not a love scene?"

     Ranko blushed pure crimson, This time, Raccoon doesn't have the faintest idea what he's asking!  She expected Nabiki-chan to laugh her head off about it, what she didn't expect, was Raccoon's reaction.

     "Tendo-san, if you do not have something constructive to offer, SHUT YOUR MOUTH!" he angrily shouted at her.  She glared at him, he stared back.

     Ranko wanted to leave the room, she hated being the subject of Nabiki-chan's glare or Raccoon's stare.  She swore she saw a fly caught between them, fall screaming to the ground in flames.

     Nabiki looked away first, "Okay.  I'll behave."

     "I was not demanding anything, I was suggesting a course of action.  If you think you could convince Ranma to kiss you, then go ahead and do that."  He glared at Nabiki who started chuckling at that, she fell silent.  "We don't have to do anything tomorrow, think about it, come up with a course of action you are comfortable with."  He looked at Nabiki, "I'm going to go practice on the roof, before `Biki-chan does herself an injury from not laughing."

     Nabiki kept a straight face until Raccoon closed the door behind him.  Then her laughter nearly knocked her out of her chair.  "One kiss and all your frogs become princes!"

     Ranko frowned at her, it was a good plan.  Toji was afraid of Raccoon, if Ranko started `chasing` Raccoon, was Raccoon's girlfriend, Toji would leave her alone.  So would the other girls, they'd quit thinking she was poaching on their boyfriends, they'd all leave her alone too.  The other pilots would recognize it for what it was, an attempt to put off Toji.  Although Asuka would never let him live it down, But was that any different from how she acted about Ranko and Toji right now?

     Nabiki was still laughing too hard to be of any use, except as a noisemaker.

     She knew he was offering it as a game, an acting scene, of no importance, to him.  Except it did mean something, it meant something to Ranma.  He didn't want to encourage his girl side, he also didn't like how it would make him feel.  `She` liked the way Raccoon treated `her`, as a friend and student, always friendly and patient, but equally proper and respectful, never romantic.  He'd seen Shinji looking at Ranko that way, even though he knew who Ranko really was, and he and Rei seemed to enjoy each other's company.  Raccoon didn't mean anything by this, he was just trying to help.

Sunday Concert

     "I don't want to go," Ritsuko heard Ranma say.  The invitation, by a `group of business men` to the Philharmonic on Sunday, had been eagerly received by most of the pilots.  With one notable exception.

     Nabiki was building up to a counterattack.

     "You don't have to come," Davis walked out of the bathroom, hair combed, teeth brushed.  "We cannot expect you to."  He adjusted his tie.

     "That's right," Ranma said.

     "Expect him to - what?" Nabiki asked.

     "Behave like a civilized man, we cannot expect him to do something he does not want to.  Just because everybody else will enjoy it, just because it's the thing a man would do," Davis told Nabiki, "So don't force him."

     "What are you saying?" Ranma demanded.  "What does listening to music have to do with being a man?"

     "Accompanying your friends, accepting that they might want to do something you don't," Davis said, "And not spoiling their good time."

     "You're right, we can't expect him to just sit and enjoy that we're enjoying the music." Nabiki nodded.  "Very wise," she added, "Bye, Saotome."

     Lt. Thompson stood with Ritsuko and Maya, "I thought you were kidding about those three."

     "All right, I'll go!" Ranma said, giving up on the issue.

     "Oh, good for you," Davis said, patting his shoulder.

     Ritsuko and Maya hid their smiles, Lt. Thompson just shook her head, "Do we have time to have them do that with Captain Katsuragi?"

     "Unfortunately no," Ritsuko admitted, she adjusted her dress, noted that her two assistants were well-dressed, neither in a uniform, just three attractive women, and that Ranma headed back into his room to change into better clothes.

     Shinji, Rei and Asuka arrived, followed almost immediately by Hikari, Toji and Hiroko.  No Kaji and no Misato, despite the invitation specifically inviting them.

     Ritsuko was disgusted, she suspected what Misato and Kaji were doing, despite their vehement denials.  She'd expected them to bow out, so she let Nabiki invite Hiroko, and let Asuka invite Hikari and Toji.  She suspected Shinji and Hikari had forced Asuka to include him.  She'd been tempted to include the Commander as a chaperone, most of the tests run today could have been run without his presence, and although she didn't like Rei, she knew the Commander's presence would please her.  She also suspected he'd be better able to keep Saotome in line, Tendo and Davis sometimes went too far when they did it.  She led the group to the limousines, the businessmen had provided the limos, the U.S. Military had provided the drivers, and the escorts.

     "Handel, Mozart, Verde," Asuka sat in the car, almost chirping with glee, "If the orchestra is any good, this will be great."

     "I look forward to the violin solo," Rei commented.

     "Oh, I forgot, Wondergirl," Asuka continued, "You play the violin too.  So, Spineless, your cello, we just need one more for a proper quartet."  She stared pointedly at Davis.  "Guitar or bagpipes doesn't work."

     "I'll play the guitar with a bow then, and there are pieces for those four instruments," Jeff told her.

     "So are you my date, or Ice Princess's?" Asuka asked.

     "I wasn't aware this was a date," Jeff replied, "If it was, we would have needed an artillery division to get Toji-san and Saotome-san to accompany us."

     "What does she see in him anyway?" Asuka wondered.

     "Well Shinji's a nice guy, and quieter than the rest of us," Jeff replied.

     "Ice Princess, not Wondergirl, you goof!" Asuka shouted.

     "I thought you were talking about Hikari."

     Shinji and Rei smiled at the banter.

     Nabiki was uncomfortable, which for her, was almost unheard of.  Here she was, in a limousine, sitting next to Ranma, on what could only be a date.  Part of her nervousness was her traveling companions: Hikari and Toji, and Nancy Thompson.  Toji was ambivalent about the whole concert idea, but he was willing to go, with Shinji's and Hikari's urging, he was behaving himself.  Unlike Ranma, who was nervously fidgeting.  Nabiki and Hikari had nothing to say to each other.  Hikari had been elevated from open joke to real leadership by Nabiki and the pilots, but it was clear to Nabiki, she wanted the top spot, and wouldn't tolerate Nabiki-style `antics`.  Leaving out that those `antics` would keep her and her austerity alive, when they found something.

     And the top spot is mine! Nabiki thought.

     She also realized that this wasn't the place to settle things.  She wished Raccoon or Hiroko had accompanied her, but Asuka had been firm, her group was 'Musicians all, and only', and Nabiki had thought being alone with Ranma was all right, then Akagi-sensei dragged Hiroko away to ride with her.  Leaving this, the only combination left.  Then Lt. Thompson had squeezed in next to Toji, incidently pushing him against Hikari, neither complained.

     Why couldn't she have sat over here? Nabiki wondered, thinking about being pressed up against Ranma . . . but she hadn't offered the seat, had been vaguely glad when the woman had chosen the seat she had.

     Why isn't the universe doing what I want? she silently asked, Better question: Why aren't I?  All she had to do was slide over a little, but she couldn't make herself do it.  It wasn't Hikari's presence, the girl wouldn't gossip and wouldn't blackmail her.  It couldn't be Lt. Thompson, from what Nabiki had overheard, and she believed it, the Army nurse had gotten medical 'samples' from all three of the boys.  She wouldn't have anything to say if Nabiki slid over and held hands with Ranma

     So why aren't I doing it? she asked herself, They practically handed you a perfect opportunity, and you sit there, like an addled schoolgirl!

     The pilots, their guests and their chaperones arrived at the orchestra hall.  Nabiki noted the oyabun was waiting with his wife, And several other members of the organization, Nabiki thought the men were too old and distinguished to be gunmen or mere functionaries.

     Nabiki bowed, "Shimurata-san.  I am pleased beyond words you could arrange this for us."  She ignored the shock of the others.

     He bowed low, introduced the members of his syndicate.  They all wanted to know that despite some hard feelings towards the pilots now, in the past, and possibly in the future, "You are welcome here, honored guests, and honored sons and daughters of Japan."  The men bowed.

     "Thank you," Ritsuko said, "That is welcome news."  The NERV group bowed in turn.

     "Davis-san, could you help me collect my daughter.  She wasn't pleased about coming here," the oyabun explained.

     Nabiki wanted to follow them, but it had fallen to her to make the introductions.

     The `business` men were shocked when Jeff, oyabun Shimurata, and his daughter walked in.  The girl seemed as astonished, leaning heavily on her father.  She was shocked about meeting all the EVA pilots.  She shook hands and got autographs from all six, even Rei.

     Nabiki also noted the Boston Red Sox cap on her head, I know how she got that, Nabiki thought, she also thought she looked a lot like Akane, Or mother.  Nabiki hadn't known their grandmother's maiden name, she felt a chill, Could this girl be my grandmother in the `Nerima World`?

     "I heard you played baseball with the Navy on the carrier!" the girl chirped.

     Better personality, Nabiki thought, Like mother.

     "Please respect their enjoyment of the concert," the oyabun's wife commented, the girl nodded, fell silent.

     The group took their seats.  Nabiki sat next to Ranma, she noted Roku-kun sat next to her, then Asuka, Shinji and Rei.  Nabiki hadn't expected the pilots to all sit together.  Ranma, trapped against the wall, shifted uneasily.

     Then the concert started.  Nabiki let herself enjoy the music, between the pieces she heard an animated discussion among the four musician-pilots, then silence as the concert restarted.  She even heard Rei speaking occasionally, usually a statement, simple and to the point.

     Hiroko sat in the second row with Hikari, Toji and the chaperones.  She'd not expected the pilots to all sit together.  She understood that they, well some of them, knew music, but the boss evidently wanted to trap Ranma, so Hiroko sat behind him, to complete the trap.  If she couldn't be with her, she could at least support her.  The three chaperones were spread out, one, Maya, between her and Toji, Lt. Thompson on the far side of Hikari, and Dr. Akagi with their `distinguished hosts`.

     Hiroko knew they were yakuza, Even they couldn't stand against the boss.  Although she wasn't happy about how the boss had managed that, she didn't want to know.  She didn't use it on trivial opponents, Hikari's continued existence made that evident.  The school mafia had sabotaged NERV, however slightly, these yakuza must have moved in and been brought to heel.

     The intermission was a welcome break for Ranma.  Nabiki and Jeff had to restrain him from jumping over the back of the chair.  He headed out into the lobby, into a smoke-filled room.  Nabiki hadn't considered that with no smoking in the theater, everyone smoked like a chimney in the lobby, including Akagi-sensei and the yakuza, and some Marine and Army minders.

     Ranma didn't find anything to eat, and the smoke probably ruined his appetite.

     During the second half, Nabiki watched Ranma actually allow himself to relax and feel the rhythm of the music, she was a little put off that he was making small movement of his hands and feet.

     `Translating` it into martial arts, she thought, At least getting him to go to the next concert won't be so difficult.

     "I could eat a whole cow!" Ranma announced as they trooped out of the concert hall.

     "Me too!" the girl, Mirei, announced.

     The same name as my grandmother, Nabiki was getting worried about this, The timing and the age are about right.  She didn't remember her grandmother, she died before her mother.

     "Well, it will be entertaining to see you two try," Shimurata told them.

     "Don't challenge them," Ritsuko warned, "I've seen them eat.  Three cows a piece is about right."

     "Ha!" Asuka announced, "You won't beat me Saotome!"

     "Are they always so, combative?" one of Shimurata's allies asked.

     "We've managed to prevent them from spilling each other's blood," Nancy told them very seriously.  The yakuza were shocked.

     The ride over to the restaurant was quieter.  Ranma and Mirei were talking about softball.  Nabiki noted that the wife was a bit unsteady on her feet, and tired easily, although she tried to be an ideal hostess.  Ranma's discussion of martial arts impressed Mirei.  Ranma seemed to open up to her.

     Nabiki noted the subjects that interested him, and what he closed up on.

     Hiroko had enjoyed the music, this time she'd managed to get to Nabiki, Ranma and Mirei, and with Maya, had gotten in one limo, while Hikari and Toji were with Dr. Akagi and their `hosts`.  She noted that Ranma was ignoring the boss, talking sports with Mirei instead.  How blind can he be?!

     She hoped the restaurant was interesting, and that she'd get the nerve to talk to the boss.

     By the time they arrived at the restaurant, the musicians were dissecting the concert, rating the various musicians, the direction of the orchestra.  Nabiki glanced at Ritsuko and smiled.  Asuka was keeping a low noise level, even Shinji and Rei were in the conversation, giving as good as they got.  Nabiki felt a little isolated.  Ranma was talking sports/athletics; Rei, Shinji, Asuka and Raccoon were discussing music; Ritsuko was talking parenting with Maya and the Shimuratas.  She stayed close to Ranma, and managed not to sound like a complete idea when she tried to participate.

     The meal was served.

     "Steak!" Asuka called, "I thought you weren't allowed to have steaks."

     "Of course," Nabiki said, "I heard they fed them beer and massaged them before they served them up."

     "Maybe that's what Kaji had in mind," Jeff said.  Earning a glare from Asuka.

     "That would be very expensive.  Who'd pay for that?" the oldest yakuza man said.

     "There will be people who would pay," Jeff added, "For tender enough steaks.  Where are they doing this?"

     "Kobe," she told them.

     Toji squared off against Ranma in speed eating, polishing off five bowls of rice.  Toji never had a chance.  Ranma sat back and poured a cup of tea while he waited for Toji to catch up, then tossed his last morsel, and the last bite from Toji's bowl, in his mouth.  Much to Hikari's and the Nabiki's disgust.  Hiroko still found she was too tongue-tied to do more than nod, besides sports and music didn't interest her as it did the others.  It was painful to watch the boss struggle to try to be part of the conversation.  Hiroko cursed her own fear, and noted Rei periodically looked pointedly at her, then rejoined her own conversation.

     Why can't I just talk to her? Hiroko asked herself, Because you don't know what she's interested in, besides photography, business and Ranma, and you haven't bothered to find out.

     Ritsuko noted that Ranma won the eating contest, although Davis and Asuka weren't far behind.  She was worried that they had many different varieties of vegetables and rice dishes for Rei.  Rei's dislike for meat was not well-known.  The girl nearly packed away as much as the other three, she obviously enjoyed the variety, and that she was part of the conversations.  Even Asuka occasionally queried her.

     Ritsuko found the parents were a good source of knowledge, their oldest and middle sons were killed in the Pacific War.  She remembered that Professor Fuyutsuki had wanted to keep the Children in contact with normal people, normal situations.  The Navy had told her who these people really were, but getting the kids out on a Sunday was worth the risk.  Considering the number of discreetly armed U.S. Military, she doubted anyone would be foolish enough to try anything.  She did wonder about the links between Nabiki and Davis and these people, the Navy had told her not to worry about it.  They could have scarcely told me something to make me more worried, she thought.

     The reporter thought he'd gotten a perfect spot to take the photographs.  He even had one of the weird pilots looking straight at him.  NERV consorting with criminals, with the tacit acceptance of the U.S. Occupation.  It was an incredible scoop, no one would believe it.  They might try to suppress this, but there were governments who'd pay good money for the pictures, even if the newspapers wouldn't run the story.

Gambit Refused

     Fuyutsuki was meeting with the Committee.  He noted that the monolith numbered 12 was missing.  None of the committee seemed to want to acknowledge the lack, or the asymmetry of their formation.  Fuyutsuki listened to the old men pontificate.

     He smiled at that, Most are younger than you, but Ikari's appellation fit.  Old women would be better, they were so terrified of their almighty plan going off the rails if someone sneezed at the wrong time.  They thought he was unaware of the source of their power, and their goals.

     As dark as our plans are, they don't compare with the ends you hope to achieve, he despised them, for both their cowardice, and their attitude 'Some have to be sacrificed to serve the greater good.'  They never put their necks on the line, it was always others who did the sacrificing.

     "That concludes this meeting," Monolith 01, probably Kehl ordered, before Fuyutsuki could bring up half the items he needed to speak to them about.  The other monoliths faded, Monolith 01 remained, "You are being insolent, the work must continue."

     "I was considering a report that the Dead Sea Scrolls are a forgery, perpetrated by the Americans," Fuyutsuki countered, Davis had him and Gendo going for nearly ten minutes with this story, it was time to share the misery.

     Kehl's continued silence encouraged him, "Supposedly General Patton passed through Middle East under official censure.  We should check with the Americans, see if they retain the originals, or the truth of the reports.  It is curious he was killed in a traffic accident so soon after hostilities ended."  Fuyutsuki knew of the wild leaps of logic and conspiracy the Committee jumped to on thinner evidence than this.

     "Thank you, Professor, we will look into this."  The Monolith faded.  Fuyutsuki stood and stretched, these sessions always felt like hand-to-hand combat.

     Gendo was waiting for him outside, "They'll be chasing their tails over that for a month."

     Fuyutsuki was glad his friend approved, and was concerned they didn't bring up his absence, again, "Since there's nothing to it, they'll look even harder.  They denied the increases we requested, and access to the data.  Thought suggesting that their holy guidebook was a clever forgery, was adequate recompense."

     Gendo nodded, "The Occupation forces will take up the slack in the Children's security, reducing the chances the Committee will be able to observe them at all times.  We may be able to accelerate the process, without the Committee knowing why."

     "Are the Children ready for that?" Fuyutsuki was uneasy about the idea of changing the plan so radically.

     "We only need six, we have ten.  A few casualties will only strengthen their resolve, make them more suitable."

     Fuyutsuki nodded.  If the Children or the Americans ever find out, they'll have our heads on a platter.

     "I'll get you all tickets when my team wins the Championship," Mirei told all the pilots as they left the restaurant.

     Nabiki thought she was going to explode, it had been a long time since she'd eaten like that.

     The yakuza had not realized the pilots could put away food like that.  The superb quality helped, Nabiki thought, Asuka and Shinji must have been stocking up.

     "Why don't we do this next week?" Jeff suggested to the pilots, "Get together to study," he smirked at Asuka and Shinji, "Get you three a decent meal."

     "I'd like that," Shinji said, glanced at Rei.

     "Just so you don't think you can monopolize all the cooking," Asuka shot back.

     "Is there anything you two don't argue about?" Mirei asked incredulously.

     Asuka and Jeff stared at each other, "NO!" they shouted in tandem, then broke out laughing.

     Mirei shook her head, whispered something to Ranma, who nodded sagely, or disgustedly.

     The group broke up, Nancy went with Shinji, Asuka and Rei.  Maya and Ritsuko squeezed into the other limo with Ranma, Nabiki and Davis.  Nabiki made sure she sat between the two boys.

     "So, do you have a new girlfriend?" Nabiki asked.

     "No," Ranma replied.

     "Easy Tendo, she was just excited about meeting the pilots, all the pilots, and someone who was interested in the things she was," Jeff added.

     "She wasn't the only one," Maya commented, "I've never seen Rei so animated, I think she was actually arguing with Asuka."

     "More of a polite disagreement," Ritsuko corrected her, "But it was surprising."

     "And Shinji," Ranma said, "Never knew he had it in him."

     "Everyone fights when they're backed into a corner," Nabiki didn't like being left out of the conversation again.

     "It wasn't like that," Maya missed Nabiki's irritated tone.

     The cavern is dark, they need no light, and no voice to deliberate these decisions.  Consensus is approaching.  The splinters have either joined one of the major divisions, or lay torn apart in the middle of the council floor.  The God has ended, Long live the God.

     That accepted, the divisions must now deal with their differences.  Others still require servants, and despite the reverence of serving the One Above, the lesser Others would accept service.

     The young, enraptured prophet had drawn a different conclusion: the God was dead, but had not remained that way.  The disagreements over the legitimacy of this belief fueled the debate.  The young one is skilled in manipulation of the elders, the assessment is simple enough, the shaman and followers would investigate the dreams, discern the truth of them, determine if the Great Old One was awake, was in need of their service.

     All consider the proposal.  Then there is consensus.  Some agree because the plan is wise, others to get rid of a clever and troubling upstart, many other reasons.  The important point is consensus had been reached, and the shaman and followers would now have to journey where the dreams lead.

     The perils of such a journey paled in comparison of what would come after.  None knew how they would react to the loss of this dream, still worse, what would happen if the dreams were true?

     They'd dropped Maya off at her apartment before returning home.  Now Nabiki noted that Akagi-sensei was showering in the bathroom, and Ranma had gone to the roof to do his evening practice.  "I want to learn how to do that," she told Roku-kun, "Whatever the cost I'll pay it."

     "A laudable desire, but this isn't something you can pick up overnight," Roku-kun replied.

     "I'll study, you'll find me a good student," she assured him.

     He seemed to be considering, "There are a few questions I have, the most obvious is, why?"

     Nabiki was nonplused, she didn't have an answer, "Doesn't everybody?"

     "No," he replied, "Most people act like Mister Saotome, trying to stay as far away from it as possible.  Your answer is no answer, so I shall try a couple of easier questions.  First, why should I trust you?  Apart from the fact that our countries were recently at war, I know next to nothing about you."

     "You said you'd read my biography," Nabiki told him, she wondered why she hadn't bothered to do the same, read hers, his, and all the others.  She expected a response, all she got was a flat stare that wouldn't have looked out of place on Rei.  Not even a raised eyebrow as the silence dragged on, not a smirk.

     "The second is, just how stupid do you think I am?"

     That caught Nabiki by surprise.

     "I have seen the way you treat Saotome, the way you treat Langley, the rest.  Your desperate need for power and control.  Since you obviously don't know how to properly use the power you do have, why would I give you more?  Your anger taints your every move, your every act, your every word.  I can practically smell it, like gangrene.  I don't know who or what you're angry with or at, and I don't care why.  Until you can deal with it, no real mage will give you the time of day, except out of pity."

     "Is that why you've been helping me?!" Nabiki was furious, "Out of pity!  Poor, helpless little girl can only get by with a big strong gaijin!"

     "I needed you to further my designs.  Evidently I have more faith in your potential than you do."

     Nabiki hated being patronized, "Maybe I should tell Akagi-sensei why we got that invitation.  Or maybe Gendo?"

     "Do as you think best," he told her calmly, tipped his hat, and left for a walk.

     Nabiki closed her eyes, Oh, Nabiki, you really blew it, why am I still so angry?  I'll never see my family again . . . and I still want to hurt them for what they did.  And I'm taking it out on Ranma, and Asuka, and everybody else.  Soun didn't throw me out of the house, my home, I left.  I didn't get dragged here kicking and screaming, I didn't think about what I was getting into.  She sighed, looked around the place, she was also afraid.  Of all the pilots, she was the only one who hadn't piloted, she was the only one who hadn't been in combat with one of those things.  She assumed they held her in contempt because of that, she assumed . . . she assumed wrong, Shinji wanted to never pilot again, it disturbed Ranma, Roku-kun treated it as giri, a duty he didn't ask for, Asuka and Rei were the only ones who actually were eager about it, and both would be just as happy if only they had to do it. If anything, they're relieved or jealous I haven't, she thought.

     She didn't want to admit it, but her anger was clouding her judgement.  She'd lashed out when thwarted, instead of taking her usual, subtler route to solve problems, and she hadn't examined the effects of her lashing out.  People had died, she hadn't pulled the trigger, I aimed the killers at them.  I should have suspected, but they made me angry.  So I took it out on someone who had what I wanted.  If I'd wheedled and cajoled, cried and begged, I would have gotten what I wanted.  Or at least something other than a flat 'no'.

     She looked around and wondered how else she could screw things up tonight.

     Jeff heard the two people approaching.  He'd almost expected this, considering the troubles he'd been having lately, "I don't see how you could tell me to trust him, he thinks with his muscles.  You're asking a lot, to trust our ultimate plan on someone we barely know."

     The gray-haired man wearing the uniform of a Navy Master Chief spoke first, "He'll be a strong Dreamer, stronger even than you and Miss Langley."

     "He can help you, if you let him," the silver-haired woman in the uniform of a WAC sergeant told him, "We ran the divinations, 12 times, each, using 5 different methods.  99.6% chance it's only him, `15 nines` he's the only one in Japan."

     "Terrific," Jeff commented, No emotion, they're just being factual.  "I've already started training him."

     "Accelerate it as much as you dare," the man told him as they dropped away.

     Jeff shrugged inwardly, disasters never came singly.  At least the question of Miss Tendo was solved.  She wasn't the enemy, at least not intentionally, but she'd never be a useful ally either.  The best he could hope for, was she wouldn't be too large a hindrance.  If she told Gendo about her suspicious, considering what Rei must have reported, it wouldn't be me Gendo would be going after.

(2) FUBENS: Fouled Up Beyond Even NERV Standards, NERV security, especially the pilots' bodyguards.  Partially due to incompetence, partially due to their constant jokes about the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) [Ogre in Japanese].  Not a term of endearment.