Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 10-11 ( Chapter 5 )

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

Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 10: Dream Education
      I am just a poor boy
      Though my story's seldom told;
      I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles,
      Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
      And disregards the rest.
      Such are promises: all lies and jest.
      When I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy
      in the company of strangers
      running scared. Laying low,
      seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go.
      Looking for the places only they would know.
      I come looking for a job, but I get no offers,
      just a come-on from the whores
      there were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there.
      Now the years are rolling by me,
      I am older than I once was, but younger than I'll be.
      That's not unusual.
      No, it isn't strange,
      After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.
      After changes we are more or less the same.
      Then I'm laying out my winter clothes
      and wishing I was gone.
      Going home
      where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me,
      leading me,
      To go home.
      In the clearing stands a boxer,
      and a fighter by his trade
      And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down
      or cut him till he cried out
      in his anger and his shame,
      "I am leaving, I am leaving."
      but the fighter still remains.
      Honor and Duty
      Wisdom and Answers

Chapter 11: Green Fire
      Green Fire
      Call to War
      Asuka in Repose
      Clash of Arms
      Fist Full of Pilots
      The Pilots Emerge
      Dramatis Personae
      Not the Cavalry
      Searching in Town
      Follow the Money

Chapter 10: Dream Education

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri


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)

Author's Note: Hyphenated names are Mind-Body

What is life? A madness.

What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story.

And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream,

and dreams themselves are only dreams.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca - Life is a Dream, act II, l. 1195

The Boxer - Paul Simon

I am just a poor boy

     Jeff found himself trudging along in the rain.  The red silk shirt and black pants plastered to his voluptuous form told him immediately, things had changed.  He turned around and faced a panda that seemed as stunned by events as he was.

     "Okay pal, you can go quietly, or I can hurt you.  Your choice."  He hoped the tone made things clear.

     It did, the bear took a step back and held out a warding hand, as if to say 'Don't hit me.'  It paused, located a pair of spectacles hanging off an ear, and put them on its face with a single hand.

     Only one person used that one-handed gesture.  Jeff couldn't believe his luck, true to form, all bad.

     He, actually she, extended a hand, "Gendo Ikari, pleased to meet you.  I'm Jeffrey Davis."

     The panda's jaw dropped to a painfully-unnatural degree.

     "Somebody is trying to be amusing, I assume that this is a dream something is sending, and we have to run to the end and figure out how to get out."

     Gendo-Panda considered deeply, then nodded, he plucked at his fur.

     "I assume that your curse works the same way they say mine does.  We find some hot water, and a set of rain gear.  Then we figure out what kind of mess we're in."

     Gendo-Panda nodded, he could hardly effectively argue in his present form.

Though my story's seldom told;

     Ranma stood atop the building in the pouring rain.  He hadn't changed genders, so he knew this was a dream.  However, none of the tricks he'd learned seemed to have any effect, so he was stuck.

     Down on the street, a girl, followed by a ball of black fog, confronted what was clearly a demon, she was alone.  He could hardly let that happen, so despite the short, chunky body he'd found himself in, he climbed down the fire escape to assist.

     He was glad he did, the girl had been joined by a boy, who had a stone statue following him. He could clearly see both the boy and girl were dark-haired European types, he wondered what he looked like in this dream.

     The demon's attention was so fixed on the quartet, it never noticed Ranma.  He launched a furious assault, or what would have been a furious assault, if the stupid body he was in had any strength or speed.  It didn't, but the blows with the small cane he'd been carrying had at least a partial effect of drawing the monster's entire attention down on him.  Fortunately, the fog and the statue took advantage, and pounded the thing from the other direction.  The demon expired under the combined assault, which was fine with Ranma, he couldn't have run away, this body didn't have any decent stamina either.

     "Davis!" the girl approached and yelled at him, "What could possibly have possessed you to do something so completely and utterly stupid?"

     "Rita," the boy soothed, "It was his first time out with us, you can hardly blame him for being excited.  Besides everything worked out."

     "Yeah," Ranma wasn't sure why they were speaking Japanese, but he didn't like getting yelled at by a girl, "Everything worked out."  Davis, did she call me, Davis?

     The girl marched up to him, knelt on one knee, so they were face to face.  From the fury of her expression, he suspected he should run away, but he doubted this stupid body was up to it.

     She grabbed him with both arms, the force of the hug nearly crushed the life out of him.  "I'm sorry!  I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," the girl told him, "I didn't mean to say all those things.  I was wrong, you don't have to prove anything, not to me, not anymore.  Okay?"

     "Okay," he managed.  Frankly, if he didn't agree, she could snap him in two, and he was very uncomfortable with a pretty girl crying in front of him, he'd agree to anything to get that to stop.  He must have said the right thing, she released him, tousled his soaking wet hair.

     "You know, you've really helped her control her emotions," the boy said, "This is positively non-expressive." His humor was short lived

     "What's your problem?  Jealous?  Just because he did his job!  And you - "

     "Shouldn't we get out of here?" Ranma-Jeff asked, the fog and the statue had consumed the demon corpse, a lot like how the EVAs did, but he knew someone had seen or heard the fight.

     "He's right," the girl, Rita, said, "Come on Henry, let's get out of here."

     "That's why he's the boss," the boy, Henry, said.

     "He may be the boss," Rita faced Ranma-Jeff, "But if you try and order me around, it's going to take more than your magic to save you, Mr. Davis, sir."

     This girl is as crazy as Asuka, no worse.  Magic! Ranma-Jeff thought as he walked along, he'd heard Nabiki muttering something about 'Raccoon's tricks' he hadn't thought it was actual magic, not in the Waking World at least.  He shuddered, to be free of the curse was one thing, to have to be a wizard to be free of it . . . I'd rather be stuck the rest of my life as a girl!  With that extremely unpleasant thought, he hurried to catch up with the other two.

     Mages.  Is that what, he gulped, All three of us are?  This was turning into a real nightmare.

I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles,

     Pale skin, blue hair, Misato instantly recognized the body she wore, and the city of Boston, in April of 1945.  Being stuck as Rei, or Kontan [Secret] as they had called her on this mission, had its advantages.  She stood atop a telephone pole, and watched the trio pass below.  The ones who had destroyed the original operation, the operation that would have eliminated the need for NERV, the EVAs, and would have put all the false gods back to sleep for a million years.  Made it child's play to locate their sleeping forms, and murder them in their `beds`.  She was back in the past, getting another chance to do it right this time.  She'd use her less threatening form to get close to them.  Rei's unnatural strength plus Misato's Army training, she'd kill all three of them this time, before they destroyed the operation, not just that stupid meddling kid too late to save things.

Still, a man hears what he wants to hear

     Rei felt the warm cobblestones under her cheek, at least she thought they were cobblestones, the fog around her was so thick she couldn't see her hand in front of her face.  The high wind was unusual, wind normally destroyed fog, but the wind-driven cold damp penetrated her heavy clothing, chilling her badly.  And whatever she had caught her knee on was beginning to chafe.

     "Relax, General." She heard a voice to her right, "We'll be clear soon.  Don't be so impatient, Asuka!" the voice beside her chided.

     Asuka? Rei had had many strange dreams, but no one had ever accused her of being the Second Children before!  The idea of hot cobblestones tickled something in her memory.  She reached out and touched the horns she had her leg wrapped around.  There were more, an entire, regular row of them.  She remembered two such rows of horns, on the back of a DRAGON!  The dragon that had taken her to Shinji-kun's dreamscape, the one who so terrified her.  She was lying atop it, as Asuka?!  She put her head back down and decided to await events.  If she was flying, getting off was not an option, and screams of terror, didn't seem to be coming.  She couldn't think straight and her mind and emotions were in such turmoil she thought she might throw up, all over the dragon, which would be worse, which . . ..  This was clearly a dream, but how and why she dreamt it, she did not know.

     The dragon and its, his?, two passengers broke free of the cloud cover, followed by dozens of other dragons, all with one or two riders.  It was a majestic sight, the scales glinting in the sun, all colors of the rainbow.  Even the light-eating black of her steed seemed opalescent at this range. Their formation flying would have done any air force in the Waking World proud.  Every dragon was covered by at least two others.  She vaguely recognized the pair that acted as her steed's `wingmen`.  But she couldn't clearly remember where or when she had seen them, the memory remained just out of `reach.`.  The warm sun and the dry air drove the chill from her.  Still the dragons climbed, the air was getting thin.  She breathed deeply and rapidly to compensate as the dragons leveled off.  The woman beside her sat up.  Brown-haired, brown-eyed, with a gaze more appropriate to the Second Children or the Commander than the timorous face it was on, "Now we earn our pay."  She pulled a pair of binoculars and started scanning the area.

     Rei-Asuka located a similar pair in a case riding on her hip, and started looking around, if for no other reason but to block out the sight of what she was riding on.  Then she spotted the Shantaks, horse-headed birds of immense size, nearly a hundred of them.  She'd only seen that many at once, one time in her life, it wasn't a pleasant memory.  Nothing had ever effaced the terror of that day, it had also been the first time she'd seen dragons.  Then she remembered, it was THIS dragon, and his two `wingmen` she'd seen that day.  There were too many coincidences mounting.

     "There!" she pointed, her companion swung around.

     "Right where you said they'd be, you ole' Dragon," the woman said.

     "It helps to have good spies, Anna," the dragon told them, he dipped his wings and pointed his head at the target.  Riders all over the formation waved spears with pennants on them to signify acknowledgment.  The entire formation turned and climbed.

     "Beware of the Hun in the Sun," the woman, Anna, joked as she prepared her long spear for combat.

     Rei-Asuka glanced around, found a nagitana with an axe blade, strapped against the dragon's flank.  She freed it and duplicated Anna's posture.  Evidently the riders would keep the dragons back clear of attackers.

     Rei-Asuka was overwhelmed by the memories, the Commander had traveled deep into the Forbidden Lands of the Dreamlands, to a hidden temple, with her and hundreds of SEELE and NERV Dreamer-soldiers.  They had found an artifact or scroll of great importance, and as they made their way back to civilization, they had been harried by attackers for a week.  Until they'd been driven into an ambush.  The Shantaks dropped rocks into any formation of men, while Moonbeasts and the men of Leng had attacked from all sides.  The Commander had ordered the troops to take what they could and scatter, she'd been separated from him.  She had to search for him for a month before she found him, suffering from his infected wounds.  She'd treated them and gotten him to the River Cities, many others had died, and they'd lost whatever the Commander had come here for.  Most striking was the trio of dragons that had cut the path out for those who had escaped: ice, darkness, claws, teeth and tails had torn the Moonbeasts, Shantaks and their slaves apart with an unthinkable savagery.  They had acted like maddened wild animals, but with an active intelligence, nothing stupid could be that vicious, it required an active and creative mind.

     Now I am back here, I can direct the forces, I can rescue the Commander.  I know what happened! she thought, "Anna, they are supporting a ground force."

     The woman looked at her, "How do you know that?  I thought I was Chief of Scouts."

     "I . . . ," she knew she could tell her the truth, perhaps she would be believed, from Anna's expression, she would not be discounted out of hand.  "I remember it.  That sounds strange to me as well."

     Anna stared at her, Rei-Asuka couldn't read the woman's face, she hoped she was weighing her disbelief against her friendship with Asuka.

     "Hey, she says there's a ground force down there too," Anna called.

     "Yes I know," the dragon replied, "I spotted them too."

     Rei-Asuka felt herself going faint, it couldn't be, it just couldn't.  It was too wonderful.

And disregards the rest.

     Nabiki looked at the architecture, it was clearly not Japanese.  She'd caught her own reflection, she appeared to be a younger Asuka Langley.  So she probably was in Germany, during the war. The sandbags and taped windows were another clue.  She looked at the young people carrying books as they walked around her as she rubbernecked.  Passing on, as if classes and exams were more important than the possibility of instant death by a passing fighter plane or bombing raid.

     "Asuka!  Asuka!" another girl, about twelve, ran towards her, "Asuka, I am so glad to see you."

     Nabiki was concerned, she had no idea who this girl was.  Evidently her face showed it.

     "I know this is going to sound strange, but I'm Maya.  Maybe you've never met me," she said desperately.

     Nabiki was relieved and frightened at the same time, "Ibuki Maya, Akagi-sensei's assistant." She let the other girl smile, then dropped the other shoe, "I'm Tendo Nabiki, not Asuka."

     Nabiki-Asuka thought Maya was ready to faint, "But where are we?  Why are we here?  How do we get home?"

     Air-raid sirens sounded, and the students, she guessed they were, started scattering.

     "You there!" an older man, a teacher probably, demanded, "Have you been assigned a shelter?"

     "No, sir." Nabiki-Asuka looked at Maya, "Neither of us."

     "Come with me!" he limped off with an air that said Nabiki-Asuka and Maya wouldn't dream of doing anything except follow him.  Neither lagged behind.

     There are no Angels attacking, I hope someone else keeps whoever away from us.  If they don't, I don't know what to do, Nabiki-Asuka thought as they climbed down into the bomb shelter. The frightened people gazed back at her, she felt Maya take her hand, it was trembling.  Fair enough, so is mine, she thought.

Such are promises: all lies and jest.

     Asuka was surprised when Commander Fuyutsuki stuck his head into this strange bedroom. "Nabiki, there is a family meeting," he told her before he withdrew.

     She stood up from the bed she'd been sitting on, stared at the face in the mirror, Tendo looked back at her, a much older Nabiki.  "Okay, this is weird," she said, accepting the unreality for the moment, dreams were like that.  She was still in a school uniform, so she went to the closet.  She felt a little strange going through Tendo's clothes, felt even worse when she found only one decent piece, a kimono, she wouldn't wear the rest on a bet.  She'd never known Tendo's taste in clothes mirrored Misato's, tacky shirts and shorts.  Now she had to remember how you wore one of those silly costumes.  You put part of it on, then wrapped yourself up like a Christmas present with the rest.  "All I need is a bow in my hair," she said.

     Asuka-Nabiki didn't recognize the two girls who waited near the table downstairs.  The taller, and presumable older one, wore a house dress and apron, the younger wore a gi, and Asuka-Nabiki noticed, she hadn't bothered to bathe after exercising.

     "I don't see why we have to be married without our consent!" the younger one announced.

     And people call me loud, Asuka-Nabiki thought, she'd gotten the kimono on, and thought she looked rather fetching, maybe she should mention that to Tendo, that she could actually look like a girl that might catch Saotome's eye, if she tried.  Asuka-Nabiki smiled at that.

     "Now, Nabiki," the older one told her gently, "Don't tease Akane."

     Asuka-Nabiki felt a tinge of nostalgia, the girl reminded her of her mother, when her mother had cared about her, before the accident.  She bowed and took a place between the two of them.

     Well, if this is Tendo's future, I can blackmail her with the information, Asuka-Nabiki thought, Arranged marriage, huh, talk about primitive.

     Commander Fuyutsuki told them that his friend was coming from China with his son, to marry one of them.

     "No way am I marrying him!" Akane shouted.

     I hate to agree, Gendo's son, I am never marrying Spineless, she kept to herself, Unless he grew up as yummy as Kaji.  Naw, he'd have to have grown a spine, that would never happen.

     There was a knock on the door, the older sister stood up to get the door.  Asuka-Nabiki wished someone would tell her the girl's name.  The girl stumbled back, nearly fainting.  A panda followed her in, with a body over its shoulder.

     Akane jumped to the attack, Asuka-Nabiki moved the other way, to flank the creature, get the person away from it.  Akane raised the table to strike the panda, it parried the blow, but Asuka-Nabiki had time to get the girl it was carrying, away from the panda.  She recognized Misato, except she was a lot younger, maybe the age Asuka-Nabiki appeared to be.  The panda growled at her, Asuka-Nabiki pulled Misato into the kitchen, and awaited the creature's advance with a butcher knife and a cleaver.

     Not much of a weapon, but better than nothing, Asuka-Nabiki thought, she didn't like Misato very much, but letting her get killed was going too far.

     The panda yanked open the curtain at the kitchen entry, saw Asuka-Nabiki interposing herself between it and Misato, and pulled the curtain closed.  Asuka-Nabiki was sure the creature had been laughing at her.  She didn't find anything the least bit funny about the entire episode.

     "Nabiki-chan," Commander Fuyutsuki called to her, "Please bring Ranma out, and some hot water."

     Oh this is going to be one of those dreams, Asuka-Nabiki thought.  "Okay."  She lit the stove and started heating a kettle.  Misato stirred slightly as Asuka-Nabiki carried her to sit next to the panda, who was sitting calmly at the table.  Commander Fuyutsuki poured the kettle on the panda, he transformed into a fat, ugly, bald slob in a dirty gi.

     The transformation of Misato was far more interesting.

     KAJI!! Asuka-Nabiki kept her joy suppressed, until she had noted the hostility of Akane, and the ambivalence of the older one, Kasumi.  "I will carry out the duty and honor of our house and family."  Asuka-Nabiki bowed formally, This is going to be such a good dream!  We're the same age, and - she stopped and considered what a nightmare it would be if Kaji was Misato as a girl, and only Kaji when he was a boy.  Quit dithering!  Raccoon keeps a thermos around, it won't be hard to do the same!

     Kaji stirred, opened his eyes, looked around.  "Nabiki?" he said muzzily.

     "You can call me Asuka," she smiled broadly, "When can you get a priest here?" she thought she was joking.  Commander Fuyutsuki let loose a torrent of tears that made her wonder if he was really an Angel, a water Angel.  The fat slob cried with less water volume, but no less emotion.  I thought Japanese were reserved and dignified! she thought as she carried a still woozy Kaji away from the deluge of cold water.

     "Asuka?" Kaji asked.

     She hugged him tightly, "We can be properly married, it's just a dream so play along."  I can show you what a real woman is like.  "And don't worry about old Captain Katsuragi, you turn into her when you get wet."

     Kaji seemed to be having trouble dealing with the new reality, she took advantage by snuggling close to him.

     "Perverts!" Akane told them.

     "Jealous!" Asuka-Nabiki shot back, and was rewarded by Akane stomping off, and the sounds of screams and lots of building material being destroyed in the dojo.  Asuka-Nabiki signed, she knew this couldn't last, but she could enjoy the moment, and lay a better foundation for their relationship in the Waking World.

When I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy

     Shinji walked across the field, packed earth, no plants, no insect sounds.  No wind stirred his hair.  He knew the place was dead, nothing lived here.  At the same time he was aware that there was potential here.  Potential of life, potential of growth, vast and untapped.  He knew what he wanted to do here, but he didn't know what he was supposed to do here.


     It wasn't a sound to be heard, or a thought sent, it was a concept that suddenly came to the forefront of his mind.  Battle one on one, for honor, for some point of contention, for the correctness of a position.  He didn't understand, and was frightened, the others weren't here, there was no help for him.  No one to advise him, no one to fight at his side.

     Images of a dozen dreams flashed before him, and the certainty that all the other pilots were occupied, so was the senior staff of NERV, including his father, and would remain so until he either won or lost.

     Buildings began springing up all around him, weird twisted things that bent the eye in uncomfortable ways.  Tall ones that parted the clouds, short ones that enclosed wide fields for sports or outdoor assemblies.  Hundreds and thousands in between.  Temples, libraries, industrial parks, bazaars, everything that a city needed to function, all built as stone piled on stone in eye twisting angles, murals and carvings of things that were clearly not human as adornments.  Wide boulevards with under and overpasses to speed commerce, narrower lanes for the denizens to travel on, foot?  Open areas of leprous plants and hideous, giant fungi, but strangely a part of the twisted city, Parks, he guessed.  He thought about the signs `Keep off the poison mushrooms.`  He smiled at that, feeling better, then feeling worse.

     Shinji felt sick looking at these buildings, but he was beginning to realize the essence of the duel, and was growing in confidence as he set out to explore this odd city.  His opponent was giving him every opportunity, fair enough, considering his unseen opponent was setting the rules about who won or lost, and how.

In the company of strangers

     "Are you sure about this?" Jeff-Ranma asked Gendo-Genma, as they trudged along, he'd also deployed his AT field to further increase their rain protection.  It was a pitiful thing, barely able to withstand the rain, but any added protection was welcome.

     "I'm not sure, I just have a strong suspicion," Gendo-Genma replied as he consulted the map he'd found in his clothes.  The route was clearly marked.  What the destination was, remained a mystery.

     "Do you have any idea why we are here, aside from learning Saotome's origin and history?" Gendo-Genma asked.

     "Not in 1992 we won't," Jeff-Ranma replied, "Take a look at the headline on that newspaper. Something mixed up a bunch of pieces, and set us in them.  Depending on which of our enemies did this, it will be more or less real.  So far it points to something that has a good understanding of the human condition."

     "And how would you know that?" Gendo-Genma asked angrily.

     "I'm a HISTORY major, read between the lines and you can see the patterns these creatures leave," Jeff-Ranma replied, then stopped.  Gendo-Genma nearly ran into him.

     "How did you know to stop here?" Gendo-Genma demanded, then read the sign, "Tendo? Indiscriminate Grappling?"

     "Do we go in or run away?" Jeff-Ranma asked, then followed Gendo-Genma inside.

     "Shouldn't we have gone around back?" Jeff-Ranma referred to the sign asking challengers to go around.

     "Could you beat Tendo, or Saotome?" Gendo-Genma asked.

     "Do they have to survive?" Jeff-Ranma asked, uncomfortable that the only link he had with his home was Gendo Ikari.  He followed Gendo-Genma up to the house, onto the deck.  The two exchanged worried glances, then Gendo-Genma knocked.

     The door opened, Misato looked at them, except she was much younger than normal.

     Nineteen, maybe twenty, Jeff-Ranma thought.

     "Father, they're here," Misato called back and smiled engagingly.

     Gendo-Genma and Jeff-Ranma exchanged worried looks as they were invited in.  They removed their rain gear and muddy shoes before they entered the house proper.  A young Ritsuko in a kimono, sat next to a teen-aged Maya in a gi, at a table in the center of the house, Maya glared at both of them with real hatred.

     The tall man with the long hair and moustache hugged Gendo-Genma with all evidence of real and warm friendship, which shocked the icy Commander to his core.  "Saotome, so good to see you."  He hugged him again, then turned to Jeff-Ranma, "And young Ranma."  The hug made Jeff-Ranma's ribs groan.  "I am so glad to see you!"

     Jeff-Ranma thought the man looked on the verge of tears, and he'd never seen Gendo look as completely frightened as he looked now.

     The father of the house introduced Misato as Kasumi, aged 19, she smiled, Ritsuko as Nabiki, aged 17, Jeff-Ranma was embarrassed by the way she was checking him out, and Maya, as Akane aged 16, she looked ready to tear off his head and spit down his neck.

     While it was amusing to see Maya with such an expression of abject and absolute hatred stamped on her face, Jeff-Ranma wasn't happy it was all directed at him.

     "My daughters, pick one to join our schools and lines together," the man told them, "The one you choose will be heir to the School of Indiscriminate Grappling."

     The three women began arguing, from his expression, Gendo-Genma wasn't going to be any help.  Jeff-Ranma wondered how marriage went with Indiscriminate Grappling, except in the most obvious way.

     "Before any decision is made, I need to show you all something," Jeff-Ranma stood, bowed, I think I know why Saotome has amnesia, if even half of this is accurate, I'd pound my head on something until I forgot all of this.  He returned with some cold water, and a kettle of hot water. "We are accursed."  The water, cold, then hot, triggered, then reversed the transformations of both of them.  All four of the Tendos fell silent.  Gendo-Genma and Jeff-Ranma waited for the others to decide what would happen.

     "Oh, Akane wants him!" Kasumi-Misato told them.

     "There's no way I'd marry that pervert!" Akane-Maya said.

     "Excuse me," Gendo-Genma said in his usual tone, bringing the argument to a halt, "Such a decision should not be made in haste."  He stared at each of them until they looked away, "My - Ranma will have to prove that he can fulfill the obligations, before any decision can be made."

     Jeff-Ranma caught the gleam in Gendo-Genma's eye, The bastard must have heard about what Ranma did, he wants to see it himself.  Well two can play that game!  "Tendo-sensei, my father has taught me, but he has not taught me to teach.  Teaching students will be required, if I am to inherit your dojo and reputation.  I believe both of us can remember enough rookie mistakes, so you can instruct us in the proper way of instructing." He bowed to hide his smile at Gendo's discomfort.

     The elder Tendo considered, "A wisdom exceeding his youth," he made it sound pompous. "Agreed."

     Gendo-Genma's expression told Jeff-Ranma he'd better sleep very lightly for the next few nights.

Running scared. Laying low,

     Ranma-Jeff climbed the stairs to the dorm, he'd only seen it once, but he thought he remembered.  The debriefing after the mission had been more thorough than any he'd been through at NERV.  That worried him, but if this was Raccoon's past, it explained a lot.  He was trying to remember the name of Raccoon's roommate as he entered the dorm room.  No one else was there, he took off and hung up the coat, then the tie.  He decided to shower and get some sleep, he didn't want to go to college, but fighting those monsters . . . if he was back in his own body, it might have been a challenge.  Stuck with only Raccoon's strength and reflexes as a twelve-year-old, it was suicide.  The walking stick had to be the key, he'd caught the others glancing at it enviously. Maybe it has enough magic I can hit things with it, and I won't have to use spells I don't know anyway. he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

Seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go.

     Misato-Rei had checked in with the project, it seemed very strange seeing Gendo, and the way he acted towards her, when she had acted like Rei usually did, Gendo had been concerned.  Seeing herself was a bigger shock, she seemed so much happier, more confident, this project would have none of the risk of the EVAs, her past self had hope that Misato now lacked.

     She was disturbed by the way her younger self treated Rei, almost as the Commander's messenger, an annoying spy to be replied to and gotten rid of, as quickly as possible.  She hated being treated that way, and wondered why Rei never complained.  She quickly learned that everyone treated her the same way, she was an adjunct to the Commander, a walking message drop at best, not a person.

     The Commander had approved of her mission to hunt down and eliminate the interlopers, he'd suggested she be extremely careful.  Misato-Rei had gone to the small armory they had, mostly American weapons purchased locally.  She'd gotten a small handgun, she would have preferred a rifle, but she needed to conceal it.  Better to get close with a lesser weapon, than risk detection with a more powerful one.

     She had no need to do the exhaustive detective work she'd done before to track down some of these kids' haunts, she remembered them.  All she had to do was ensconce herself in place, and wait.  This time they would have no advanced warning, she'd simply act.  She tried to channel the anger appropriately, but the need for revenge on the `Angels` and their allies kept bubbling up. She'd kill them this time, she'd kill all three of them.

Looking for the places only they would know.

     Rei-Asuka watched the dragon formation wheel behind her and the Dragon.  "We'll make a pass on the Shantaks, then drop down and deal with the ground forces," the Dragon rumbled.

     Rei-Asuka could only nod, the Dragon seemed to be able to understand this.

     "You okay?" the woman, Anna, asked her.

     "I, I remember the battle, fighting on the ground against Moonbeasts and men of Leng," Rei-Asuka explained.

     Anna nodded, it seemed to accept this without question.  It struck Rei-Asuka as odd that anyone would be so accepting.  Perhaps they have worked together so long, they fully trust one another. The formation dropped at a steep angle, Anna kept silent, Rei-Asuka also hushed herself, though she wanted to scream at the uncontrolled fall towards these huge enemies.

     The dragons changed to a line abreast formation, their riders lying flat to reduce drag.  The Shantaks were still unaware, she could see the riders directing them, men of Leng.  The range shrank from a handful of kilometers to a few dozen meters, then the dragons discharged their breath weapons, ice, flame, lightning, darkness, acid, every lethal agency Rei-Asuka had ever seen.  The few surviving Shantaks flew away shrieking, many dumped their riders to gain speed.  The dragons closed to range of claw and fang, if a Shantak tried to attack a dragon, the riders killed it, or kept it occupied until another dragon could kill it.

     The slaughter was terrible, although the dragons were outnumbered better that two to one, they killed without losing a single member of their force.  Some were wounded, riders were crushed, but the dragons never wavered.

     With the battle well in hand, the Dragon she rode on, dropped back into the clouds, something the Shantaks had failed to do, they'd sought height as protection.  The two wingmen disengaged and followed, as did two or three of the wounded.  Down through the cold damp of the clouds.  She lay down to keep away the deadly chill.

     "Batten down," she felt the dragon rumble, "I need your eyes."

     By feel, Rei-Asuka found the straps to the straps that had held the polearm in place.  She had it buckled in before they broke through the underside of the clouds.  Then she pulled out her binoculars, they were almost unnecessary, she knew where the battle would be joined. "Southwest, over that ridge," she told them.

     "It's a diversion, but we'll hit it anyway," the Dragon replied, dropping low, skimming the trees, the Moonbeasts and their allies wouldn't know they were coming, until they were right on top of them.

     This time I can save you, she watched with equanimity, as the six dragons closed on the enemy. She heard the faint rumbles within, she'd discounted them before, now she knew they were the terrible breath weapons being readied.

     Ice, fire, darkness played over the diversion, hundreds died and their location was revealed to NERV, then they were over the NERV/SEELE forces.  Rei-Asuka caught the flash of blue hair, wherever `she` was, the Commander wouldn't be far away.  She saw the terror in her own eyes, as death flew overhead, killing the enemy before her and the enemy behind, but leaving her untouched.  It was an image she'd never forgotten.

     The real attack force was ten times as large as she remembered it, perhaps because it had spread out to catch stragglers and escapees in the original battle.  Here, the tight formations only made slaughter easier.  Again the breath weapons led things off.  A long sinuous pass, spraying great areas, before climbing back into the sky.

     "Crossbows," Anna told her, pulling a light bow from her pack, uncapping the quiver at her belt.

     Rei-Asuka pulled her own bow, the heads of the crossbow bolts glowed a faint, healthy blue, Enchanted against our enemies.

     "Now things get interesting," Anna smiled at her, like the Second Children's smile in battle, "I love dancing."

     Rei-Asuka hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about.  The dragon landed in the scattered groups and tore into them, Rei-Asuka carefully aimed and fired at anyone aiming a missile weapon at the Dragon, it was difficult with this huge creature leaping, rolling and bouncing around.  She understood why the uncomfortable intertwining of legs and horns, she stayed attached even when the creature was upside down.

I come looking for a job, but I get no offers,

     The sirens sounded 'All Clear', and for the first time, the tension in the bomb shelter reduced.

     "Let's see if they left us anything?" one of the students joked, a few others laughed, but most simply filed out.

     Nabiki-Asuka was glad Maya stayed near her, she needed a friend right now, someone who knew who she really was.

     "What do we do?" Maya asked.

     "From everyone speaking German, I guess we're in Germany, how old do I, does Asuka look?"

     "About twelve, but they're speaking Japanese, not German," Maya said.

     "Maya, you're speaking German, perfectly, just like me."

     "You're speaking Japanese."

     "Okay, let's shelve that, what was Asuka doing when she was twelve?"

     "Attending University, and the Institute, NERV Berlin in effect."  Maya considered, "Unless the Russians are a lot closer, in 1945 with the Russians closing in, she disappeared, and didn't reappear until she and Unit 02 were in British custody."

     Why didn't I study any history? Nabiki-Asuka thought, the minutia of the War in Europe had never interested her, now her life depended on it.

     "The Battle of Berlin occurred in March of 1944, I guess that's where and when we are," Maya told her, "I just don't know."

     Terrific, Nabiki-Asuka thought, "Well, let's find out who you really are."  Nabiki-Asuka started going through the bag Maya had with her.  "Anna Alice, you're a pilot too, you've got Institute entry cards, and travel documents."  Nabiki-Asuka considered, "Lets head over to this Institute, find out what they have to say."

     Maya-Anna nodded.

Just a come-on from the whores

     "Perverts," Akane said to Asuka-Nabiki and Kaji as they held hands and walked.

     "Maybe I should tell her what I have planned for you on our wedding night," Asuka-Nabiki purred to Kaji, who blushed, "Let her know what a real pervert thinks about you."

     All the color drained from Akane's face.

     Stupid little girl, Asuka-Nabiki thought, How does she think she came into this world? Spontaneous generation?  A virgin birth?  Men and women act this way.  She was glad that Kaji was going along with this.  They could have a lot of fun, almost like a private vacation.

     "I hate BOYS!" Akane shouted as she raised her bookbag like a weapon, and charged into the schoolyard.

     "I grew out of that phase when I was 10," Asuka-Nabiki told Kaji.

     "Be fair, Asuka-chan," Kaji remonstrated, "What do you think of most of the men and boys here?"

     "Yeah," Asuka-Nabiki admitted, "Maybe she is right.  What is that noise?"  The pair saw several student athletes sailing up into the air, the pair exchanged a glance and charged.

There were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there.

     Gendo-Panda sipped his tea, it was too much trouble always changing, and the fur hid the bruises until they faded, he decided not to play shogi with Soun, he cheated, badly.  Gendo quickly discovered how to beat him easily.  If this is a variation of Saotome's and Tendo's history, it explains their odd behavior.

     "I told you, 'I fight my own battles!'" Akane-Maya was yelling as the high-schoolers returned home.

     Kasumi-Misato smiled as she refilled his tea, and set down a plate of snacks.  She poured a bit of tea on him, so he'd be human when the others arrived.  She politely but firmly slapped his hand when he reached for one of the snacks.  He glared at her, took one, daring her to interfere.

     "It is acceptable," he intoned in his most threatening timbre.

     The tone that could cause even American Generals and Admirals to quail in fear, only earned a delighted sigh and a smile.  The idea of `Misato` providing food, even entire meals, that weren't merely edible, but delicious, keeping the house spotless, was equally jarring.  Gendo knew the jokes about using Captain Katsuragi's cooking against the `Angels`, wasn't really a joke: a particularly potent batch of `curry` had been used on a minor minion.  It had worked, but the amount required and the application technique made it impractical to use as a weapon.

     Jeff-Ranma walked in with Nabiki-Ritsuko on his arm.  That too was jarring.  Jeff-Ranma had a huge stack of books.  He set them in from to Gendo-Genma.  "Somebody has a sense of humor, a very weird sense of humor.  I hope you can still read English."

     Gendo frowned, then one of the titles caught his eye, "'Call of CTHULHU'!!!" Gendo was more than shocked.

     "The rest of the books are like that," Jeff-Ranma told him, then dropped a paperback on the table.

     Dropping a basket of scorpions wouldn't have had Gendo scrambling back out of the way as fast as the title of that book had.  "A NECRONOMICON!"  In paperback!  Gendo hadn't hit that note since Yui died.  "ARE YOU COMPLETELY INSANE?!!"

     "That's beside the point.  It's a little about the mythos, but mostly it's Sumerian and Babylonian mythology.  It's not real, just a joke."  Jeff-Ranma smiled at Gendo-Genma's discomfort, "The stories are more accurate.  I thought that if whoever sent us here wanted us to get access to this information, then I had to wonder 'Why?'"

     Gendo-Genma shook his head, he had no answers to these question, "What about the other denizens of this place?"

     "He outsmarted Kuno," Nabiki-Ritsuko said admiringly.  Gendo-Genma felt like gagging, seeing his chief scientist with the vapid expression of a love-struck schoolgirl on her face.

     Jeff-Ranma smiled back at her, with the same look of mindless contentment, "It should get the pressure off Akane, dealing with him permanently may take more effort.  The lessons in teaching are more a threat to life and limb."

     Both of them winced at that.  The lessons were punishing, although the knowledge was useful.

     Gendo-Genma doubted he or Jeff-Ranma would be drawn into a battle here, the inmates were so unstable, it was child's play to convince one to fight another.  The place was a powder keg.

     Gendo-Genma returned to the table and began reading through the stack of books, Lovecraft, sounds like a jewelry company, or a porno shop.

Now the years are rolling by me,

     Rei-Asuka watched and listened to the deliberations of her fate silently, unmoving.  Rei-Asuka knew they were called the Forbidden Lands for a good reason, she had not known it was a knight's job to keep people from entering.  That she had `led` a major force into the Forbidden Lands, and out, was a serious matter.  King Kuranes himself was listening to the testimony.  The only thing that had shocked Rei-Asuka, was that her counsel had changed from one of the Dragon's wingmen, to the precise old man she'd met in Zais.  Perhaps I should have accepted his offer of a tour, Rei-Asuka thought, she also knew that the real Asuka would have been shouting about injustice or stupidity, or something right now.  Rei-Asuka had already decided her unfamiliarity with those around her mandated her silence.  She also suspected a respectful silence would be more effective than a screaming fit.

     The only truly frightening time came when one of the witnesses against her shouted something about dying before dishonoring knighthood.  The Dragon, actually, the Scholarly Dragon, commented 'That could easily be arranged.'  King Kuranes had demanded they act in a civilized manner, and that the knight apologize for the slur, this hearing was to determine if any crime had occurred, and where to fix the blame.  The Scholarly Dragon had claimed the blame for the orders himself, she could hardly be held fully accountable for actions taken under orders, and against the enemies of Celephais and the River Cities.  The argument was partially discounted, but Rei-Asuka found the loyalty between a knight and a dragon very strange.  In the Waking World, the Second Children seemed to bring out the worst in everyone.  Here she was beloved, it confused Rei-Asuka.  The deliberations finished, and Rei-Asuka was remanded into the Red Dragon's custody, but she was not to leave the area, on her honor.

     She had, of course, agreed.  When they tried to return to the camp they had pitched outside the city proper, a group of knights blocked their path.  Rei-Asuka expected a fight.

     "You must think we've lost all sense of hospitality," one of the knights, a woman, told them. She looked them over, "I was at El Nureenen's fortress when he fell, watching the battle from the walls."  She bowed, "The debt we owe can never be properly repaid, even if you are removed from the rolls, which the King will never allow, you will have a place of honor at our tables."

     "Feeding dragons is an expensive proposition," her advocate, Alwyk, warned the group.

     Another knight laughed, "Ah, a challenge!  We could hardly refuse now could we?"

     The knights led them through the city's widest boulevards, the Scholarly Dragon would not have fit through the smaller ones.  They arrived at the knights' quarter, the entire force of dragons and men that had been part of the strike was assembled here.  Rei-Asuka had asked their forgiveness, but she really wanted to rest.  They were obviously disappointed, but understood, taking her to a room in one of the mansions.  A female attendant drew a bath, had soft robes for her when she finished.  Rei-Asuka was embarrassed by the attention, the near reverence showed her.  She slept for an hour and woke, changed into the clothes that had been laid out for her, tight riding breeches and a white silk shirt.  She was especially intrigued by the dragon design embroidered on the loose-fitting shirt. The stitching was so tiny, the colors so vibrant, the dragon head and neck with a long mane of red hair, Like the Second's own, Rei-Asuka thought.  She was beginning to understand some of the Second Children's `arrogance`, it wasn't, she was a combat veteran and leader, and a well-respected one.  Rei-Asuka found she liked being treated like this, she was used to being feared or ignored, being respected and deferred to was a wholly new experience.

     Her reverie was cut short when she was suddenly enclosed by almost a dozen jet-black telephone poles.

     "Langley, are you all right?" the Dragon asked.

     She suddenly realized they were fingers, the Dragon's fingers.  The touch was soft, the embrace was warm, in temperature and feeling, "I don't know."

     "The King has to hold these hearings, it's the law," the huge creature tried to comfort her, his friend.  "Your knighthood is in no danger, at most he might demand a vigil or an ordeal.  If Tembris really pushes, he might demand a gauntlet."  The huge creature snickered at that, "The knights and squires around here might go for that, if we could convince them to do it barehanded. Most would love to be able to boast they touched, or were close to the Meliorist, the invincible Asuka Soryu Langley, the true scion of Teutonic Knighthood."

     She turned to face him, that maw that could swallow a whole horse, "I am not afraid for myself."

     The huge creature's expression softened, "Langley, you can't keep blaming yourself for that. You did what was necessary, and I, did what had to be done.  I survived.  Whatever is on the outside, I'm still me inside."

     Rei-Asuka nodded.

     "You should go out there, let the knight lionize you a bit."  The Dragon smiled, "Since you've keep complaining that we never let you play catch anymore, we'll have a big game later.  We have enough dragons and people."  A claw that could eviscerate a main battle tank brushed of few strands of hair out of her face, "Feel better?"

     "Yes," Rei-Asuka said.  The Dragon withdrew.

     Rei-Asuka considered her situation.

     "So you come all the way here, and can't spare a moment for your old teacher?" a middle-aged man chided her from the door to her room.

     "I'm sorry, I - " she began.

     "You didn't want your dishonor tainting your old teacher."  He laid his hands on her shoulders, squeezing them gently, "My reputation can stand a little tainting, from my most determined apprentice."

     She nodded, accepting the hug from the older man.  It was very uncomfortable, all these people touching her, all these friends of the Second Children, all these people and things who knew and cared about her, loved her in their own ways.

     "I know hot pincers and branding irons would never pry how you are feeling out of you, how is he."  The man nodded to where the Dragon had been, "He said you are still guilty about it, and are still punishing yourself."

     Rei-Asuka wasn't sure what to say, "He said there is nothing wrong."

     "You two are the same," the man shook his head sadly, "You'd take a deathblow, and act like it's only a flesh wound until the job is done.  You'll both pay a price for that.  There are people who'll help you, if you only let them."

     Rei-Asuka nodded, she wondered if the same advice applied to her.

I am older than I once was, but younger than I'll be.

     Nabiki-Asuka and Maya-Anna passed the guards and proceeded to the Institute's main EVA labs.  A man who, except for his neatly groomed hair and walrus moustache, was practically a poster for mad scientists, hailed them.  "So, you come back so soon, yes?"

     Nabiki-Asuka wasn't sure how you could speak German, with a thick German accent.  "Yes, teacher."

     "Oh, teacher is it?" the man feigned shock, "Fallen behind in your physics homework, and you start calling Dr. Schikelgrubber, 'Teacher'?  And Anna, what is your excuse?  Did you finally persuade Asuka to let you have a chance piloting the EVA?"

     Maya-Anna looked shocked, "No sir," she stammered.

     "There was a raid near the University."

     "Ah, you didn't come to see an old man, you came to see that the EVA was all right," the man chuckled, "Come with me.  I think you worry too much, unless the British use their subpen busters, or their ggreg guided-bomb, they'll never make it through the concrete and steel over our heads."

     They entered a bay filled with something like L.C.L., except it was brown, not black, and didn't smell as bad as L.C.L..

     "I'll develop a connective fluid that doesn't look and smell - "

     "And taste," Nabiki-Asuka interrupted.

     "Yes, and taste like excrement, eventually.  Would you prefer pumpernickel, or strudel, or peppermint schnapps?" he chuckled.  "See, all safe and sound.  Like I said, you worry too much. You waste your time with math and Physics, you should study engineering, get your degree, become my assistant.  Whether we win or lose this war, we'll need people to maintain these."

     "I want to be a pilot," Nabiki-Asuka remembered Asuka's oft-repeated refrain.

     "You can't do both?  HA!  A pilot would be a perfect assistant.  Only an idiot wouldn't take advantage of it," the man ushered them out of the bay, away from the smell.  "Asuka, you shouldn't turn your nose up at something, just because someone you hate does it too."

     Nabiki-Asuka had no answer for that, But it is a useful insight.

     "Doctor, what do you know about the Japanese project?" Nabiki-Asuka asked.

     "Bah!" the man said, "So you heard about Ikari and Fuyutsuki's little undertaking, yes undertaking, a good word for it, five dead pilots so far, and only one success."  He shook his head, "They have two Units and only one pilot.  Ikari is no scientist, no engineer, and Fuyutsuki is a Doctor of Psychology, not even a psychiatrist.  They'll never match what we've done here," he assured them.

     That explains Asuka's contempt, and no mention of Dr. Akagi? Nabiki-Asuka thought.

     They left the Institute to go back to the University.  There was no damage there, but Nabiki-Asuka had to develop a plan to figure out how to discover what she was expected to do, what classes she had to take, where she had to eat, where to sleep.  She thought Germans would have a schedule for things, Now, now, Nab-chan, don't make assumptions she chided herself.

     She and Maya-Anna headed for administration.

     "`Anna` you don't believe I'm taking classes, okay?" Nabiki-Asuka told her.

     "I guess," Maya-Anna said, perplexed.

     Nabiki-Asuka sighed, "Just play along," Nabiki-Asuka told her.  She wondered if it was going to be easy or hard.  Asuka graduated in 1946, in 1944 she was a sophomore or junior, What was math or physics at that level?

That's not unusual.

     Asuka-Nabiki watched Akane charge into the middle of the pack with another shout of 'I hate boys.'  Both Asuka-Nabiki and Kaji winced at people being thrown every which way.

     "Should we intervene?" she asked, with her arm firmly holding Kaji's.

     "On which side?" Kaji asked.

     Asuka-Nabiki had to admit she wasn't sure.  The idiot with the wood samurai sword concerned her.  Kaji was no martial artist, he could fight, but not like that.  Genma had given a him beating, stolen his food, just this morning.  Asuka-Nabiki already had a plan for dealing with him, she idly wondered how accurate a representation of Ranma's and Tendo's history this was.  The time of 1992 and the insane characters made it impossible, it had to be a parody, and a crude one.  The same way that the people currently receiving a lethal beating at Akane's hands, would be getting up with bandages on their injuries in a few minutes, or if anything interesting happened.

     She was glad she'd kept the thermos.  She could imagine how the hormone-addled morons would react to Misato.  She already had plans to get Kaji a second thermos, she had discovered that a near thimbleful seemed enough, but even at that rate, the 2-liter thermos was a third empty just from the walk to school.  That worried her.

     The crowds seemed amazed that `Nabiki` had not only a boyfriend, but a fiance!  Asuka-Nabiki would ask Kaji later if he minded being `rented` to provide some money for their near-destitute hosts.

     The swordsman, Kuno, gave Kaji his deepest sympathies for being attached to the vampiric mercenary.  Asuka-Nabiki discovered that she could kick a 6-foot moron clear over the school building.  Kaji was shocked.

     "When in Rome," she said defensively.  She quickly learned from her factors, versions of Hiroko, that she had assaulted her best customer.  Now Asuka-Nabiki had to wrack her brains about how Nabiki had run her operations in the `Real` World.  She also had the way to get back to Kuno's good graces. If `Ranma` wasn't engaged to her, he'd have to be engaged to Akane, honor demanded it.  She didn't want him screwing things up, Asuka-Nabiki thought, No wonder she's so arrogant, facing morons like this.  She'd never survive at University.

No, it isn't strange,

     Shinji climbed out of the sewer, for the previous `week` of his exploration, he'd felt a growing amusement from his `opponent`, as he looked into everything, the infrastructure, the detail level of the city constructed, etc.

     He had mapped the city, seen how it was layed out, details of the construction, he had learned a little about the expected denizens.  They would either swim or fly, there were no stairs or elevators, an anteroom at nearly every floor, open shafts that reached up through the buildings, nearly to the sky.

     Shinji had also drawn the designs for his answer to this challenge.  He found his confidence in creating small things had increased.  He smiled, he'd need Asuka and Raccoon if he wanted to actually build the place in reality.  But in dreams, he could create the entire city with his mind, he'd done this before, without understanding it.  With Asuka's lessons, he understood the process, at least partially.  Creating the drawings and models had been tests for the larger, more complicated structures that would follow.

     He wanted the city to be a perfect example: he had a mix of industrial, offices, residential, gardens and temples.  Places to be with other people, places to be alone.  His work would be done soon.

     He kept expecting his opponent to `cheat`, send something to snatch away his notes, plans, models and drawings.  But it never happened.  His opponent was `playing it straight.`  It would win or lose, on the merits of its efforts, and his.

     Shinji missed the others, even Asuka's and Ranma's insults.  But he knew they were depending on him, even if they didn't know it.

     He felt very tired, he'd never worked so hard in his life: looking, thinking, planning.  He wished Rei were with him.  He wanted some companionship, and he wanted someone to look out for him while he rested.  He wasn't sure he fully trusted his opponent, and the loneliness was beginning to bother him.

After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.

     Ryoga wasn't used to being upside down, held by a force he couldn't see, or break out of.  "If you had any honor, you'd let me go.  Fight me like a true Martial Artist!"

     Ranma knelt down to look at his face.

     Jeff-Ranma angrily considered the 'Lost Boy', and his ruthless attack on the Tendo home. "When you first attacked me, when I first defeated you.  I made the conditions of any rematch quite clear.  The living quarters were off-limits, as were Nabiki and Kasumi, the others could fight their own battles," Jeff-Ranma ignored another demand for release.  "That let you attack me at school, or on the way, and in the dojo.  You could also come to the door like a civilized human being, and demand a challenge, focus on the work demand for a moment.  You gave your word, as a Martial Artist, that you would abide by that arrangement."

     "Coward!  Let me go!" Ryoga shouted.

     Jeff-Ranma removed a pair of bolt-cutters from his pack.  "Since I can't trust your word, let alone your word of honor, you've made it necessary for me to take other steps, permanent steps." He knelt down to look at the shocked 'Lost Boy', "What's really sad, is that Akane was actually sweet on you, I was hoping something would develop there, but when you hurt Kasumi . . . Now I think she wants to boil you alive, slowly.  There's something funny about that."

     "You're going to kill me?" Ryoga asked, horrified at the prospect.

     "Oh, hardly.  I need as many people praying that Kasumi pulls through as possible.  I suggest, after I'm done, you start visiting temples, and offering prayers.  What will happen to you if she dies?  Well," Jeff-Ranma stood up, he had no intention of facing a murder charge, but this idiot didn't know that, "This is what I do for injuring her."

     Jeff-Ranma returned with the bags of groceries, he put them away before he went to see Kasumi-Misato.

     "I hope you killed him," Akane-Maya told him, her anger on a slow-boil today.

     "Akane," Kasumi-Misato rebuked her.

     "He won't be back for a long while," Jeff-Ranma felt bad about the bandages on Kasumi-Misato's head, and how tired she looked.  Akane-Maya and Nabiki-Ritsuko had kept her awake, in case of concussion.  As he sat at her bedside, earning a dirty look from Akane-Maya, she put a hand on his leg

     "Please promise me - "

     "I didn't kill him.  I just sent him away, and made sure he wouldn't be returning soon."  He had to force himself not to freeze when `Misato` touched him.  He had to remind himself it was really Nabiki's sister, not the captain of NERV.  The idea of her being a beautiful, gentle woman, and an excellent housewife disturbed both him and Gendo, about the only thing the pair shared.

     "Don't worry, I got the groceries, I'll fix dinner."

     "You don't think I can cook!?" Akane-Maya angrily accused.

     "I think your sister might need to get up, and I'll bet she'd rather have her sister help her, rather than her future husband or brother-in-law."  He glanced pointedly at the bathroom.

     Kasumi-Misato giggled at Akane-Maya's distress, and that `Ranma-kun` had once again avoided an argument with Akane.

     "Don't let Nabiki attack you in the kitchen!" Kasumi-Misato warned, giggled.

     "I'll sneak in here and give you equal time," he whispered, amusing Kasumi-Misato and infuriating Akane-Maya.

     Jeff-Ranma enjoyed being `ambushed` by Nabiki-Ritsuko, usually a hug or a kiss.  He wasn't sure he'd ever be able to look at Ritsuko, or Nabiki for that matter, quite the same again.

     "So how are the study guides selling?" he asked just before the middle Tendo daughter grabbed him.

     "You certainly spoil the mood," she grumped.  "They're selling well, flying off the shelves. With the calendars, shoot, we should be able to get the house replumbed.  Get a decent water heater and furo.  Maybe big enough for two." She put her arms around his waist, rested her head on his shoulder.

     "What's the story with that doctor anyway?" Jeff-Ranma asked.

     Nabiki-Ritsuko sighed, but it didn't cause her to loosen her grip one bit.

After changes we are more or less the same.

     Ranma-Jeff was up at 6:00 A.M., doing katas.  His roommate had arrived sometime during the night.  If he had to fight, he could at least train this body how.  After about half-an-hour, he was tired of the clumsiness of the body he was stuck in, trying to teach it all the moves he needed to use.  He took a break and explored the room, found the sword stand: two cavalry sabers and two claymores.  He smiled as he removed the claymores and began practicing, duplicating the moves he watched Raccoon doing on the roof, `back` in Tokyo.

     It was as if the muscles suddenly switched on, the moves came smoothly, the transitions came automatically.  The changing balance didn't effect him as he expected, the body expected and compensated automatically.

     This is more like it! he thought, enjoying the ease of movement he was more used to.  It was nothing like his normal level of ability, but it was a lot better than the clumsiness using his techniques.

     "You should wait until Fencing class," Sergeant Malkowitz said from his bed.

     Fencing class, Ranma-Jeff thought, He took classes in fighting?

     "Der Sweez fencing master is supposed to be taking on all challengers," Malkowitz said it with such contempt, Ranma-Jeff wondered if the `Sweez` was very bad, or more likely, very, very good, perhaps unbeatable.

     Until now, Ranma-Jeff liked what he was hearing.

     "But he doesn't use claymores.  You'd better practice with the saber and the foil, unless you want to try the epee?"

     "Thanks," Ranma-Jeff resheathed the claymores, and removed the sabers, again, the muscles seemed to know what to do.  The movements came easily.  Ranma-Jeff wondered if he should take one of these with him on the evening demon hunts.  Then his eyes fell on the black and silver cane. Could that be it? he wondered, That is a weapon.  He didn't know why, if it was a magic weapon, Raccoon didn't carry it anymore, instead of a much larger brass and dark wood piece.

     Maybe because he limps, needs a real cane, Ranma-Jeff picked up the cane, duplicated the saber's movements and felt, right, moving that way.

     Ranma-Jeff was satisfied, he had a weapon to use against his enemies now, those demons would no longer hurt anyone, if he could help it.

     "I know your patrols are important," Malkowitz told him, "But I can't cover for you forever. You've got to take some time to study."

     "This is important," Ranma-Jeff said.

     "I know, but you've got some big tests coming up.  If you don't hurry, the war will be over before you graduate.  With us and the Russkis closing in on Germany, that only leaves Japan.  Once we firestorm the country from end to end, the war will be over.  The only place anybody will speak Japanese, is in Hell."

     Ranma-Jeff bristled at that, he definitely didn't want to point out the man was speaking Japanese now.  He also didn't like the implication of genocide of the Japanese people, the total annihilation of the population, discussed so casually.  Ranma would have to ask Raccoon about where Malkowitz had served in the war, and why he didn't act that way when the pilots had been together in this room, almost two years from now.  Ranma-Jeff didn't want to think about it.

Then I'm laying out my winter clothes

     Rei had thought Asuka was strange and brusque, now she was certain she was insane!  This is her favorite game?! Rei-Asuka thought, as she sailed through the air, some 3000 meters above the ground, with only the caprice of dragons to keep her from plummeting into the ground.  `Catch` involved a number of dragons, a much smaller of humans, and two goals some 50 meters across. Like the American game of basketball, you weren't allowed to hold or carry the ball while moving horizontally, but letting it slide over your serpentine body wasn't holding it, neither was flipping it into the air with wings or tail.  The major difference was that this game was played in three dimensions.  'Out of bounds' was less than 500 meters, or more than 5000 meters.  A few dragons patrolled the upper reaches, a much larger number patrolled the lower section, they would catch anyone who slipped through, she'd been assured that it was a grave dishonor for the dragons to have to involve the 'line judges', unless the two dragons knocked each other unconscious.  That did nothing to make her feel more secure.

     The Scholarly Dragon was down below, that was the only thing that kept her from screaming. The huge monster seemed to care deeply for the Second Children, Like attracts like, she couldn't help thinking, even as she thought how unfair the comparison was, the Second made her and Shinji monstrously uncomfortable, but that didn't make her a monster.  Her silence seemed a spur to the dragons, inciting wilder, more last second catches.  The dragons were scored individually, although there were `teams` of dragons and humans, who cooperated.  The teams were the wildest daredevils and the highest scorers.

     Because of her reputation, and her silence, she was an extremely popular `ball`.  After intercepting a catch or throw, they joked that if the Scholarly Dragon was playing, they'd never get close.  She couldn't figure out how a person could evade a dragon, or affect things.

     One dragon in particular had been staying close, 'stealing' her on passes.  Now he passed her from neck to the tail, she'd slide down the length of his body, then he'd flip her forward to start the process again.  He'd been climbing as high as he could, approaching the out-of-bounds upper limit. Suddenly the creature gripped her firmly in its claw.  It dove straight down, the referees above and below made sure no lateral motion occurred.  As he dropped near the goal, he extended a wing tip and began spinning rapidly.  As the dragon neared the level of the goal, he released her.  She'd built up a tremendous speed, none of the goal tenders could intercept her as she sped through the ten-meter wide `special` goal.

     She wondered if any of the dragons could catch her as she began dropping.  One of the silver dragons caught her carefully as she arced to the ground.  She kept silent, but she was shocked that even the wild Second Children found this enjoyable, let alone a chosen activity.  She wasn't sure whether she wanted to faint or throw up.  She didn't protest, so she was carried to the nearest upper corner of the game area, and tossed back into the mix.  She wondered when the game would be over.

And wishing I was gone.

     Nabiki-Asuka couldn't believe her ears.  Analytic and Algebraic Topology of Infinitely Differentiable non-Euclidian . . . at that point her brain started running out her ears.  What truly frightened her, was opening her, Asuka's, notebook.  She'd already solved all the problems, derived the equations the teacher was struggling through, and written the word BORING! underlined five times, on the bottom of the page.

     Nabiki-Asuka was completely lost, she had no idea that mathematics could do these things, completely without any regard to any numbers.  She hoped the other classes weren't like this, hoped it was some kind of parody or joke.  Where people would stand around arguing about what the word 'is' actually meant.  She prayed this was a dream, and not a real exchange, if Asuka ever found out she flunked a whole semester because of Nabiki, she doubted even her martial arts would save her.

Going home

     Asuka-Nabiki congratulated herself, she'd extorted 5000 yen a week `dating expenses`, and every weekday kendo lessons for herself and Kaji from Kuno.  `Ranma` needed to learn the proper use of the sword from the beginning, since he thought weapons of any kind were dumb, and she to convince her father that she too could be a martial artist and worthy heir, so they'd have less reason to force Akane on `Ranma`.  Kuno had spouted no less than six haikus on the duty of a true samurai, and four that despite her previous dishonorable actions, she too bent to the honor of love. Asuka-Nabiki had never wanted to pound anyone SO BADLY in her life, but doing so would have messed up the deal, and made her look immature to Kaji.  Kuno could wait.

     She also wondered how Genma had liked the laxative she'd mixed into the cookies last night. Most of them had only gotten one, or at most two, and had been a little loose this morning.  Genma had eaten 26.

     Asuka-Nabiki had enjoyed watching Kaji and Kaji-Misato kick the old panda around the yard, then Asuka-Nabiki had the lovely opportunity of beating the crap out of Genma herself, literally. Kasumi wouldn't even let him back into the house until he finished `dribbling`.  Asuka-Nabiki smiled at that, It served the old bully right, he wants to act like an animal, he'll be treated as an animal.

     Kuno is the next test, Asuka-Nabiki thought, she and Kaji had been working on Kuno, trying to convince him to call off the Hentai Squad.

     "Tendo-san," Kuno offered the bunch of roses to Akane as she entered.

     Akane braced for the fight she was expecting.  Kuno only bowed, told her she looked lovely, and walked away.

     Asuka-Nabiki let out a sigh, she immediately charged Kuno when she saw him waffling, considering leaping back to sweep Akane off her feet.

     "Don't," she hissed to him, dragging him away, "This will take time!"

     "But I must truly profess my love to . . . AIIIIE!" Kuno said as Asuka-Nabiki tightened her grip and twisted his arm.

     "Do you know nothing of girls?" Asuka-Nabiki asked, "Ranma and my love is not yet the basis of marriage.  A sword is not forged in a single day!"

     She kept from throwing up, as Kuno spouted haikus about love and swords.

     That's an image I don't really need to think about, Asuka-Nabiki thought, He's cute, but he's the exact opposite of Ranma, too intense.  At least Kaji doesn't act like that.  Thank GOD!

Where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me,

     Shinji was exhausted, but he still had work to do.  The sewers, the streets, even a few of the buildings were in place.  It wasn't the instantaneous appearance his opponent had used.  But he was no Great Old One, he built bit by bit, and he was tired.  One of the first buildings he'd created was a hotel.  He had made it out of ordinary materials, only when it worked did he try strange materials he could imagine but didn't exist.  Glass like steel, a building that was a living tree, a few other things that were more art than science.

     The hotel, his normal building, was furnished like the hotel they met Asuka in, in Boston, but with a few Japanese amenities.  As he was soaking in this large furo, he considered the ridiculousness of bathing in a dream, but then he realized whatever he needed to do to win . . . he smiled at that, Asuka might be pleased with his 'Anything for victory' attitude.  But he didn't like losing any more than any of the other pilots, he hated being ridiculed, but he could escape into his own mind.  Here, like the EVA cockpit, he had no place to retreat to.  So he would fight, by any means necessary or available.

     He yawned as the heat relaxed him, right now, resting and planning the next step was how he would win.  He was disappointed, only a half-dozen square blocks of buildings for the dozens of square miles of water lines, sewer lines, telephone cables, etc.  But he wasn't sure how much time he had.

     He shook his head.  He needed to relax, recover his strength to complete the work tomorrow or over a few days.  He wondered if the others were `fighting` as he was, each with their own specialties.  He wondered if the battles were as esoteric as this one.  He smiled, Maybe not Ranma's.  But Tendo-san making money, Asuka solving science equations, and so on.

     He hadn't the faintest idea what Ayanami-san was doing.  He was a little ashamed that he had no idea what she liked to do on her own, she'd always done what he wanted to do.  He'd been happy about someone actually doing that, so he hadn't considered he was forcing her, maybe to do things she didn't want to do.  He shook himself again.  There was nothing to do about that here, except resolve to let her decide what they did next time he found her in his dreamscape.  He hoped she wasn't offended that he hadn't thought of it before.

Leading me,

     The fencing class was fairly basic, although it did include a whole series of moves and techniques Ranma-Jeff had never seen.  He disdained weapons, once someone took them away, you were helpless.  He quickly saw the student here wouldn't have given him a decent workout. He realized from the saber to the cane, if you applied a weapon's technique to anything of that approximate shape and style, and you learned enough of them, anything could be an improvised weapon with only a small reduction in effectiveness.

     The warm up and a little sparring showed him all the rules, his classmates chalked up a misstep or illegal action to his 'enthusiasm for the match.'  He quickly mastered when, where and how you hit.

     Then the master and his students walked in.  They appraised the entire class with a sneer, until they came to him.

     "They let children in now, perhaps I should take this one on and you can put your defeat down to youth."  The man had some gray in his hair, so he had to be the teacher's assistant or his best longtime student.

     Ranma-Jeff could feel the best way to deal with this chump, "Unless you're his best, quit wasting my time.  I came for a match, I can get practice anytime."  Not the best etiquette, Ranma-Jeff saw the disapproving smirks on his fellow students' faces, But he started it.

     The man went rigid, "You want a match little boy?  I will show you how a master fences."  He put on his mask and stalked to the arena they called a strip.

     Ranma-Jeff knew he was at a disadvantage, he was a little more than half the man's height, and he still had some unfamiliarity with the foil the man chose.  That made Ranma-Jeff feel a little better, his dodging could be put to best effect and he could practically hide all his target areas behind the sword's handguard.

     They saluted and began.  Ranma-Jeff knew that if he could dive and roll, it would end the fight instantly, but that wasn't allowed.  His dodging skill wasn't the complete protection it would have been in his own body, but attached with the parries, he was well-defended.

     "An unorthodox style, I - "

     "Can't handle it?" Ranma-Jeff was also mastering a more subtle insult style, his own hit too hard, and tried to overpower an enemy.  More like fencing, Raccoon and Asuka would let an enemy commit, then use their own force against them at a critical point.  It worked too, the man was livid behind his mask.

     The man charged, realized he'd walked into Ranma-Jeff's reach and . . . "Touch is good!" the referee called.  Ranma-Jeff smiled at the foil bent nearly double touching the bigger man's heart. His blade was pointing nearly a yard away from him.

     Both withdrew to their start points.  The man clearly didn't want to make that mistake again. Ranma-Jeff knew he'd take the match, and his opponent, much more seriously.  This time Ranma-Jeff attacked.  He felt constricted, like he did piloting the EVA, he couldn't unleash himself fully, both because of the constraints of the form, and his body not being up to it.  The speed and precision of his attack, though, was almost what he hoped for.  He drove his opponent clear off the back end of the strip.  He didn't know the rules for that, so he quickly backed to his starting position.

     Ranma-Jeff could see the man was more than angry, he was furious.  If he gets crazy, I do what I have to, Ranma-Jeff decided.

     The man advanced carefully, but Ranma-Jeff could see the stiffness of his form.  He had the choice of playing with him, to make him explode, or using the stiffness to win.

     Making people explode hasn't done too well lately, he thought, Don't get overconfident, just beat him and get it over with!

     "The touch is good!" the ref announced.  Ranma-Jeff wasn't sure if that ended the match, but the man stripping off his mask and throwing it across the room before stalking out made it clear he thought it was over.

     "Easiest foil match I ever judged," the ref commented while the other students closed in to offer their congratulations.  Ranma-Jeff didn't know how one-sided his victory had been, his right-of-way, the traditional method of judging foil matches, had never been threatened.

     Ranma-Jeff accepted the accolades eagerly. He liked winning, preferred it.  He also had a little more respect for his roommate, he was good with a sword, his cane, any long thin, preferably sharp, object.

     Since Ranma apparently didn't use weapons, Raccoon must figure there's nothing I can teach him, Ranma-Jeff considered, And he'd never let Ranma teach . . . , he smiled at his own cleverness, But Ranko owes him a lot, and is another person.

To go home.

     The dance was not what she had expected.  Very somber, elegant, almost regimented, Rei-Asuka was very grateful for the last.  She collected the names, and danced as the others did, although not very well.  She was surprised when the King took his spot on her dance-card and waited his turn.  All this was very new to her.  The disturbance brought her back to the experience did she have.

     "So, should I thank you for rescuing my servants?" the elegant man in the Egyptian garb, including the two-part crown, approached, no one barred his way.

     The angry murmurs of the Knights and the dragons indicated they were aware something was amiss.  She could feel what this man-thing was, as it headed through the crowd straight towards her.

     "It is customary to give ones name," the man who was Asuka's mentor interposed himself.

     "I have so many," the man said, "Which should I use.  How about king of kings?"

     "How about slave of highest slaves," the Dragon slowly meandered over, the creature seemed slightly put out by the huge creature's approach, "Or would you prefer Malignant Tripod?"

     "One with more wisdom would be careful," the man, it was either a Great Old One or an Outer God, Rei-Asuka was sure.

     "I've eaten more fearsome things than you."  The Dragon yawned, stretched, incidentally showing the claws that rivaled katanas in length and sharpness, and a mouth full of teeth.  From the smallest the size of a carving knife, to the carnassial shearing teeth, where the molars would be on a herbivore.

     Those could bite through an EVA's limb, Rei-Asuka realized.

     "I came to tell the most honorable Knight, that her master has fallen," the man told Rei-Asuka.

     The Commander is dead?! Rei-Asuka felt despair, then she realized that this creature was unaware of the change.  "I have no master," Rei-Asuka tried to sound like Asuka, it was a poor attempt.

     "So one of your slaves blew his brains out," the Dragon said, "Soon the other will fall as well."

     "God will restore the world," the King announced.

     "The so-called king speaks," the man sneered, "Do you refer to the little gods of the Dreamlands, or the pitiful little god of the Canaanites?  He was not present when I came on the scene."

     "He probably had something more important to attend to, Nyarlathotep," the Dragon said, "Or you decided not to see Him."

     Rei-Asuka recognized the creature now, and knew it was among the strongest of the Outer Gods, why did it have an interest in the Second Children?

     "If we are telling names, should I tell them what you truly are?" Nyarlathotep asked the Dragon.

     "You don't have the wit to know what I am, oh Mightiest of Azathoth's slaves.  Considering your master, you must conjecture that you are the only thing in the universe that thinks.  I assure you, you aren't."

     "Be polite," Rei-Asuka advised the Dragon, "He does think."  She ignored the guffaws of the knights and other guests, "I thank you for the information, I'm afraid I have a dancing partner."

     Nyarlathotep concealed the flash of anger, "I came in peace, and I have only been insulted."

     "Where do you usually go to be insulted?" Alwyk asked.

     "We should be allies, your enemies are our enemies.  How many of you have lost a clutch of eggs to them?" Nyarlathotep asked in a wounded tone.

     "Not as many as you would kill," Alwyk shot back, "There is a great difference between being pillaged, and being punished.  You and your kin deserved your fate."

     "Peace old friend," the Dragon told him, "To be angered by something that is merely a pile of vomit and rancid chicken soup is unseemly.  Have you considered honest work?  As sour as you are, you could do well making pickles."

     Rei-Asuka laughed at that, earning a glare from the Soul and Messenger of the Outer Gods.

     "You would be better served not to sneer at your betters," Nyarlathotep warned.

     "Don't you have enough enemies?" the Dragon asked, "How many of your own kith and kin want you dead?  You would do well to not make any more unnecessary enemies."

     "Is that a threat?" Nyarlathotep asked sarcastically.

     "You mighty Trivialities are so thin-skinned, not everything applies to you," Alwyk said.

     "I think you'd better go," King Kuranes told him.

     "Oh, I merely want to thank my unwitting servants for helping me recover my property," Nyarlathotep told them, smiling, "Only humans would participate, even expedite their destruction so eagerly.  You have my thanks."  The creature vanished.

     "This changes everything!" Tembris bustled over, "To serve such a creature dishonors us all, and endangers all of us."

     "The creature wanted to make trouble, when the Moonbeasts betrayed his aim of stealing what the tomb-robbers stole," Altara approached Rei-Asuka, glaring at Tembris.

     Tembris thought to brush the old woman aside, then remembered what she really was.

     "You also assume we let the humans keep what they had stolen," the Dragon told them, "There are subtler ways than a military assault, some of us can do both.  Others can do neither," the Dragon chuckled as Tembris stormed away.  "Remind me why I haven't eaten him."

     "You're on a moron-free diet," Anna approached, replacing something in the sleeves of her dress, "That's why you let the other one go as well."

In the clearing stands a boxer,

     Nabiki-Asuka met Maya-Anna in the cafeteria, unlike the open rooms with long tables she had expected, there were many booths and smaller square tables, almost no noise, even the noise of silverware was muted.

     "Do you understand any of this?" Nabiki-Asuka asked Maya-Anna in a near panic.

     Maya-Anna stared, "Maybe sempai might, I can barely recognize the overall concepts.  If she can do this, she should be working with Dr. Akagi," Maya-Anna told her.

     Nabiki-Asuka thought the same, physics had been worse, even the history class was at the limits of her knowledge.  She had no idea what to do, except muddle through the classes and learn as much as she could about the EVAs from Doctor Schikelgrubber.  Maybe that was the advantage, Ikari and Fuyutsuki, even Dr. Akagi were tight-lipped about the mechanics of the EVAs, the problem was she barely knew the questions to ask.

     Would Maya help me without `sempai` looking over her shoulder? Nabiki-Asuka wondered.

And a fighter by his trade

     Asuka-Nabiki looked at the new opponent, a boy who claimed to know Ranma.  Kaji had fortunately made himself scarce, this clown was completely out of his class, all Kaji would do is get killed.  Asuka had a lot more experience dealing with powerful opponents, with inadequate means, than the idiots around here did.  She approached the boy.

     "Where is Ranma hiding?" he demanded of the crowd, who were already scattering.

     "Please don't hurt me," Asuka-Nabiki said in her most simpering tone.

     He paused, stared at her, and his brain began to fog over, she was showing as much skin as her school uniform allowed.

     I feel like that slut Misato, Asuka-Nabiki thought, But she taught me this, so . . .   "A big, strong, handsome man like you, couldn't be afraid of little girl like me."  I hope Kaji appreciates this, I think I'm going to be sick.  I'm glad Tendo doesn't act like this.  She walked closer, his nose started to bleed.

     Just hang on Asuka, put his head underwater and drown him, she was backing him away towards a fountain.

     Before she had to close in and kiss him, or knee him in the groin, he fell in.  Asuka-Nabiki grabbed the sputtering pig, she quickly changed plans.  "Oh KAWAIII!" she held the pig against the exposed part of her breasts, it fainted instantly.  "I'm never going to get the blood stains out of this dress."  She repeatedly hit the pig's skull with the edge of her heaviest school book.  She considered simply killing the pig, then she saw Kuno, and had a much more fiendish idea, it would also deflect Kuno's pursuit of 'his plum-haired goddess'.  All she needed now was, Yes, there's Kaji.

     "Kuno-sempai," she almost hated doing this, "I have the gravest news."

     "The fool who attacked our hallowed place of learning?" Kuno intoned.

     "Right here."She showed him the pig, she could see his disbelief, "You've heard of the sorcerer Circe?"

     If he knew or not, Kuno would never admit ignorance.

     Asuka-Nabiki set the unconscious pig-boy down and poured some of the hot water from her thermos, to return him to his natural state.  She saw Kuno shy away, now to lay the trap.  "I'm afraid that isn't the gravest news.  While this one," she kicked Ryoga, "Kept Ranma busy, the sorcerer herself was looking for you.  Vengeance for wrongs done by your parents."

     She watched Kuno look around nervously, she continued, "Your Plum-haired goddess would not permit this."

     "Ah, the tender bravery of true love," Kuno allowed a tear of joy to roll down his face.

     "She saved your life, at a terrible cost to herself.  The sorcerer has her, and to torment both you and my beloved Ranma," she allowed herself a tear of her own, "She cursed my beloved Ranma to take the face and form of your beloved."  She splashed Kaji, who became Kaji-Misato.  "Oh the horror, and fiendishness of this curse!"  She shook her fist at the sky.

     "Nay, Tendo Nabiki."  Kuno offered the thermos to Kaji-Misato who quickly returned to being Kaji.  "The vengeance of the Blue Thunder shall be swift and sure."

     "I fear not," Asuka-Nabiki said, "I don't know where the sorcerer may be hiding.  Planning her next attack, I will be vigilant, but it may not be enough to return your plum-haired goddess to your side, where she belongs."  Asuka-Nabiki could see Kaji's skin crawling, but she had to play this out.  "This one may know, if he truly is a man, and not a pig."

     "What price do you put on him?" Kuno said warily.

     "Kuno Tatewaki-san," Asuka-Nabiki said sternly, "Even I can see the true love blossoming between you two.  All I desire, is when you force the sorcerer to release your plum-haired goddess, you force her to release her foul curse on my treasured Ranma."  She bowed, low and formally.

     "I have spoken and thought less of you, in the past." Kuno laid his hands on her shoulders, spoke gently to her, "I see the power of true love can redeem even as mercenary a soul as yours." He looked at Kaji, "You are truly favored by heaven."

     "Thanks," Kaji managed.

     Asuka-Nabiki bade her farewells to Kuno, who was already planning ways to extract the location of the 'foul sorcerer's lair' from his henchman.

     "That should take care of things," Asuka-Nabiki told Kaji as she walked him home, "Now he knows about the curse, and with luck, he'll quit chasing you."

     "I don't know what to say," Kaji had been horrified by the lengths Kuno had gone to to pursue his 'plum-haired goddess'.

     "Say you'll marry me," Asuka-Nabiki smiled at him.

And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down

     Shinji watched the building form around the skeleton of girders and pipe, This is getting easier.  The experimental buildings were more tiring and difficult, regular buildings were easier. Still, he refused to eschew the odd, the experimental and the weird, just because they were so difficult.  It was like music, sometimes you had to try something, and keep doing it until you were good at it.

     He was glad of Asuka's lessons, although he'd never admit that to her, he smiled at that.  Asuka was arguable the strictest teacher he'd ever know, nothing was ever good enough, but at the same time, she'd never let him quit trying.  'NO IT ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH!  KEEP TRYING, don't assume you can achieve perfection.  Even I'M not perfect, BUT I'M A LOT BETTER THAN YOU ARE!'  He wondered if she'd meant to make him competitive, that she was so much better that he was.

     He thought about that, unlike Misato and his father . . . and Saotome-san, she never crushed his spirit.  She dragged him from one achievement to another, never letting him pause to savor the victory.  He wondered why she was in such a hurry, then he stopped, the building was finished, and he realized THIS was the reason.

     "Would she be proud of me," then he laughed, "What!?  Only 30 square miles!  You could have done 60!"  He missed the others, how long had he been here?  It seemed like weeks or months. The sun never rose, it never got dark.  He was never hungry, and he slept only when he was tired.

     "I need to build some restaurants," he said, then thought of the strangest design he could, hanging gardens, crystalline bridges over waterfalls.  He began sketching the design in the dust, "No, that looks too much like a spider."

Or cut him till he cried out

     Misato-Rei couldn't imagine where they'd gone, she remembered the almost daily meetings at this coffee house.  They hadn't met here tonight, she wondered where they were.  She considered intentionally getting close to them.  Rei was a cute, odd, little girl, maybe they wouldn't react to her.  All I have to do is get close.

     She was glad to be back where the enemies were clear-cut, everyone outside the project here was the enemy.  It struck her as strange, that they were in an enemy country to save the human race. It didn't hurt her a bit that the occasional random side-effect harassed these people, although it did attract those lousy kids.

In his anger and his shame,

     Ranma-Jeff thrust the walking stick home.  The creature twitched and collapsed.  For the first time on as long as he could remember, he'd won, won clearly, decisively, against an opponent who was trying to kill him.  He'd won, not the EVA.  As he watched the demonic corpse disintegrate in smoke, he felt strangely empty.  He knew what the creature would do if left to its own devices, it was little different than the `Angels`.  At least it wasn't a person, he realized he wasn't a killer, maybe the `Angels`, but nothing else.

     "We got the other ones," Henry ran up, "I still wish we knew where these things were coming from."

     "Wasn't our genius going to do a weighted average based on their speed and appearance site?" Rita announced.

     So that's what that map was! Ranma-Jeff thought, "This way."

"I am leaving, I am leaving."

     Misato-Rei watched in horror as the boy pointed right towards the headquarters.  She knew the most delicate experiment of the entire series was taking place.  If they disturbed that, everything would be for nothing.  AGAIN!

But the fighter still remains.

     Nabiki-Asuka shook her head.  The Professor was explaining about their enemies, "They are quantum mechanical macroscopic creatures."

     Nabiki-Asuka hadn't the faintest idea what that had to do with anything, or what it meant.  If Asuka understood, Nabiki would have to beat her up until she explained it.  "I don't understand."

     "Their wave function extends far beyond their surface."

     Which tells me precisely nothing, she thought.

     "They tunnel through our universe, rather than move normally, like electrons," Professor Schikelgrubber explained.  "The AT field an EVA produces, forces them to operate by Newtonian laws within its influence.  If the AT field is strong enough.  The AT field may explain why fists may have a greater effect than gunfire.  Although, 10 times virtually nothing, is still virtually nothing."

     I just can't wait to tell Ranma that, Nabiki-Asuka thought sarcastically.

     Nabiki-Asuka entered her apartment at the University.  A grim man in a Luftwaffe Oberst's uniform [Air Force Colonel] waited before the door.  He was fidgeting with his briefcase, as if working up the courage to knock.

     "Miss Langley," the man straightened up, saluted, "I am glad you have returned.  I'm afraid I have bad news for Miss Alice."

     "She's inside," Nabiki-Asuka said, opened the door to a scene of Maya-Anna struggling through Nabiki-Asuka's homework.

     The man stood at attention, "Miss Alice," he began once Nabiki-Asuka had sat next to her friend.  "I regret to inform you that your brother, Gunther,  was killed yesterday.  He was leading a group against the bomber stream," the man paused, "When he was attacked by an entire enemy squadron, he caused them severe casualties, but did not survive."

     The man took Maya-Anna's look of incomprehension wrong, "I'm afraid this had been confirmed."

     "Thank you," Maya-Anna said quietly.

     "I apologize for being the bearer of such news, and I . . . " the man's carefully prepared speech faltered, "There are no words to comfort your loss, he was a good friend, a good squadron mate. He will be missed."  He opened the briefcase, "The rest of his personal effects will be sent here. His will insisted this be sent to you in the event of his death, 'When he couldn't protect the hope of the World anymore.'"  He set a metal strongbox down amid the homework papers, "In accordance with his wishes, I have not opened it.  His personal effect did not include a key."

     "I have the key," Maya-Anna said quietly, "I thank you for telling me in person.  I, I think I'd like to be alone for a while."

     "Of course," the man clicked his heels, turned about and left.

     Nabiki-Asuka closed the door behind him.  "What was that all about?"

     "I have no idea," Maya-Anna admitted, fishing the odd key out of her baggage.  It fit perfectly. Inside, wrapped in a half-dozen silk handkerchiefs, was a silver ring with a large black stone in a gold setting, it fit Maya-Anna's index finger perfectly.

     The other item concerned Nabiki-Asuka, a pistol and two clips of ammunition.  It was small enough to be readily concealable.  "What the heck is this about?"

     Maya-Anna stared at it as if it was a poisonous snake, and shook her head.


     Nabiki-Ritsuko grunted, bore down, "Ranma, THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!  I'll kill you for this!"

     "You're doing fine," Jeff-Ranma counseled, "This isn't as hard as I thought."

     To forestall the comment from Nabiki-Ritsuko, "Purple is a good color for you.  Just remember to push."

     "I AM PUSHING!!" she shrieked at him and tightened her grip on his hands as the contraction peaked.  Then launched into a string of comments about his parents, breeding and other habits.

     He half-listened to them.

     The OBGyn who was monitoring the progress of the delivery nodded, "Everything is going just fine."

     Jeff-Ranma nodded, she'd taken him aside some months ago to inform him that she'd never met any new mother as anxious about the delivery as Nabiki.  Anything to keep her mind off it, she approved of his antics.

     "I can see the head," she told them.

     "I told you you could do it.  Just push," Jeff-Ranma told her.

     Nabiki-Ritsuko answered him by tightening her grip until his bones creaked.  "Next time it's your turn!"

     "Okay, you're on.  You probably won't be as good a coach though.  You know you're beautiful, don't you?" he kissed her forehead in response.

     She growled at him and continued to push.

     The cry of a child changed everything, Nabiki-Ritsuko released her grip on his hands and carefully took the baby from the doctor, cradling it gently.  "He's so tiny," Nabiki-Ritsuko said.

     "She's beautiful, like her mother," Jeff-Ranma said.

     "She?" Nabiki-Ritsuko said in a small voice, "Kawori."

     "She," the doctor confirmed, raised an eyebrow at Jeff-Ranma.

     "I'm a magician," he smiled under the mask, looked down at his wife of three years, and their first child.  "Compared to miracles, I'm an amateur."

     "We need to clean her up, and weigh her, and you need to get some rest," the doctor had said once the after birth was taken care of.

     "May I?" Jeff-Ranma asked the orderly who was preparing to push the bed to the room.  The man nodded.  Jeff-Ranma smiled at that, husbands didn't attend their children's births.  The HELL this one wouldn't, he remembered the livestock and a few human births he'd been present at, assisting his aunt when she was a midwife, he wasn't going to be absent at the birth of his first child.  Having one yourself, talk about sympathy pains, he smiled at the thought.

     As he wheeled her through the hall, the orderly watching to make certain he made no mistakes, Jeff-Ranma spotted Gendo.  The man practically had his nose pressed against the glass. Jeff-Ranma made a moose antler at him, a signal the child was musume, a girl.  Gendo turned to Nodoka to announce the news.

     Jeff-Ranma shook his head.  That had been a transformation.  The arrival of Nodoka, who looked like a cross between Rei and Shinji, Gendo, now legally his name, had changed almost overnight.  He'd told her that the pair of them had been fighting ancient demons, a paraphrase of what NERV was doing, and as a result of their successes, both of them were accursed.  When she brought up the contract, Jeff-Ranma had flatly told her if she even thought she'd carry it out, he'd disown her!  She'd proclaimed the contract fulfilled, and told everyone she was taking her husband off to get reacquainted.

     "I'm so tired," Nabiki-Ritsuko told him as they transferred her onto the hospital bed.  "I'm all puffy and bloated."

     He knelt and kissed her gently, "I think you're as beautiful as the day I married you."

     "You are such a liar," she smiled at him.

     "You need rest, I've got to go defuse the nuts before I let them come see you, and they won't until you're rested."

     She nodded and closed her eyes.

     Jeff-Ranma walked into the waiting room, Gendo and Nodoka stood with Soun.  Akane-Maya shifted uncomfortably.  Kasumi-Misato took Tofu-sensei's hand.

     "She's just tired, she and our new daughter are doing just fine."

     Amid the shouts of joy and deluge of tears, Soun advanced and pounded him happily on the shoulder.

     Jeff-Ranma glanced through the glass partition at Kuno and Shampoo, Boy was that a weird story, who were in the other room, looking after the kids, their four, Kasumi and Tofu's one, Gendo and Nodoka's two.  She hugged Kuno to within an inch of his life.

     What kept running through Jeff-Ranma's mind, over the accolade and cries of joy, was what he and Gendo had discussed after Gendo-Genma returned from his sojourn with his wife.  That there was no 'solution' to this trap, they were being held here, allowed to get as much happiness as they could, then it would all be snatched away.

Honor and Duty

     Ranma-Jeff had entered the building, and was horrified by what he'd found.  The demon was the size of an EVA, he wondered how Davis had defeated the thing.  Probably didn't let them summon it in the first place, he thought as Rita's cloud and Henry's statue hurled bolts of energy at the thing.  He looked at the corpses, it looked like NERV uniforms some of them were wearing. He thought he saw Gendo, or at least most of him, in one of the emissions of glowing fluid that illuminated the area.

     Ranma-Jeff headed towards the center of the corpses, picking his way carefully over the ghastly flooring, to see if anyone had survived, and what else they had summoned.

     Misato-Rei moved through the killing grounds, she was too late again!  This time was worse, the huge, black dragon had killed the demon that was currently lashing around, before it could kill all her colleagues, only the boy had died.  This time they'd killed the project, everybody.  They'd pay dearly.  The boy was in her sights, her finger tightened on the trigger.  The blast of lightning was unexpected.
     Ranma-Jeff looked at the corpse the bomb had produced.  He never seen a demon using a gun, it looked a little like Rei, but it had escaped the big demon, it had to be a demon.

     I wonder what that says about Rei? Ranma-Jeff wondered.  The other thing that frightened him was the 'bag of tricks' literally, he carried.  Bombs, amulets, charms, other things, he'd thought Davis was a mage, it seemed he just had a collection of magic items.  He wasn't sure whether that made him feel better or worse.  He approached the hole surrounded by a pair of glowing circles. He looked down into the hole to see where it led.

     The three of them crashed through the door, scaring Sergeant Malkowitz.

     "What's the heaviest weapon you can get?" Ranma-Jeff demanded as he went through the small `weapons` locker.  He realized he didn't have the faintest idea what he was looking for and at.

     "It's a vampire, we should use a stake," Rita told them.

     "You know someone with a wooden copy of the Eiffel Tower?" Henry demanded, on the edge of hysteria.

     "Well," Malkowitz interjected, "There's the thing your friend Montgomery wanted you to test."

     "Huh?" Ranma-Jeff said.

     "He made it in Antioch, to retake his guardianship of the Oracle at Delphi from the Nazis," Malkowitz pulled out a large rectangular canvas bag.  It was covered with Greek and Christian symbols, a note taped to it, clearly instructions, was written in Chinese.  So none of them could read it.

     "He didn't leave a manual did he?" Henry asked.

     "Wait a second!" Rita demanded, "Guardian?  You know the Python of Delphi?  Why do I get the feeling at St. Peter's, people would recognize you, and ask why you were talking with the old guy in the funny hat?!"

     Ranma-Jeff ignored her as he looked at the block inside the bag.  There were metal rods, wooden splinters and vials of water surrounding two metal cans.  "What the heck is all this?" He looked for any clues.

     "Supposedly its water from the fain in Jerusalem, pieces of the True Cross, and the rods have elements of the nails from the Cross.  All driven by nine pounds of torpex," Malkowitz told them.

     "Sort of a sanctified satchel charge," Henry said, "Count three and throw."

     "What kind of an idiot are you?"  Malkowitz handed them a plunger and a spool of wire, "Set it, and remotely detonate it."

     "Let's go," Ranma-Jeff put the satchel on his shoulder.  He was petrified at the thought of facing that thing again, but he also knew it would eat the entire city if it got loose.  I have to do this!  I can't run away, Ranma-Jeff thought as they rushed back to the site.


     Rei-Asuka almost smiled when the sentence was read.  Five days' solitary vigil in the tower, she could understand that Asuka would be hard-pressed for such a penalty.  For her, being alone with only her thoughts was no problem.

     Or so she'd thought.  She'd been tortured by concerns where Shinji-kun was, what were the others doing, did they need her help, was she neglectful 'enjoying' this sojourn into the Second's history while the others might be fighting, and dying, alone, unaided?  She was practically in tears when they opened the door on the fifth day, leading her out for her final interview with the King. More than anything, she wanted to check on the others.

     The old man, one of her `wingmen`, Alwyk, she remembered, waited.  "That is the nature of this tower."  He wrapped a warm cloak around her, "The others await below."

     Her heart soared, then crashed as she remembered it was the others of 'here and now', not the ones she had been thinking of.  She nodded and accompanied him, she felt very small, and very cold.

Wisdom and Answers

     Nabiki-Asuka sat in Unit 02's entry plug, whatever this stuff was, it was a lot less unpleasant than L.C.L..

     "Thirty-five percent," Dr. Schikelgrubber told her over the command radio, "That's the best you've ever done.  Have you been doing the exercises I gave you?"

     "Yes," Thirty-five?  Asuka usually averages at least 100!  I've never seen her as low as 80! Nabiki-Asuka was thinking about all the things she'd learned, mainly she wondered why Dr. Akagi never mentioned any of them.  "So Doctor, you were saying about the EVAs, they were combat machines."

     "Yes, little Asuka," his tone implying 'Asuka-chan', "There is a great darkness coming."

     "The Communists?" Nabiki-Asuka was glad she remembered at least that much of History class, although it had been the 1947 version.

     "No, nothing human.  These machines were built by the ancients, and something else helped them, something far cleverer than we are.  That's why we need the L.C.L., the pilots, and all the special gear. When the ancients won the war, they turned their machines off, mothballed them, and buried them.  Good preservative, anaerobic conditions and - "

     "So you need all this gear to keep them running after all that time?" Nabiki-Asuka asked.

     "No, we need all the folderol, to operate them while their still off."

     Nabiki-Asuka was thunderstruck, If the EVAs can do all this while they're switched off! "What can they do when they're switched on?!" Nabiki-Asuka had trouble keeping her voice level.

     "We don't know, at the very least, they should be able to operate autonomously, without external power or a pilot.  Or they may need a person to act as their volition, but the entry plug will be unnecessary, a person might merge with them, directing them in combat, then step out afterwards.  The possibility that they'd have to be trusted to follow orders once activated is one reason it hasn't been investigated," the scientist chuckled, "Can you imagine one of these rampaging across the countryside?"  He laughed out loud.

     Nabiki-Asuka found nothing to laugh about.  But because she'd been lied to about the EVAs, however unintentionally, and the magnitude of their enemies.  She'd never expected this, I've got to start paying attention, she thought, To everything.  If a tank jury-rigged to operate without being 'on' could defeat all it's enemies, what would happen when it switched on?  What would happen to the pilot inside?  'They're alive, anyone can see that,' Roku-kun had told her, 'The EVA is life,' Rei had mentioned, 'It feels like it's occupied,' Shinji had said her.  She'd felt it herself, maybe not a thinking creature like a human, but a mind able to plan and make agreements, and discriminate between people it liked and didn't.

     Unit 02 didn't feel like Unit 01, whatever 'occupied' it was very different.  Nabiki-Asuka wondered if Asuka's inability to link with the other EVAs would prevent her from feeling that difference.  Only Rei and Roku-kun could sync with all the EVAs, Did they know?  Why didn't they tell us?  She realized these thoughts were spiraling into paranoia.  The `adults`, to use Asuka's phrase and tone, claimed to know everything, she was just told that they were covering up for their ignorance.  It isn't a mad plot to kill us all, it's just a  stupid excuse to save face.

     "I'm sorry I upset you, your sync rate dropped ten points, it almost back now," Dr. Schikelgrubber told her, "I don't think we should talk about the EVAs anymore."

     "Okay," Nabiki-Asuka was relieved, she wanted to know more, but these revelations she could only take in small doses.

     "How did school go today . . . Okay," the scientist began, "That was a 15-point drop, does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?"

     Nabiki-Asuka didn't know if she should discuss what she'd learned with Maya-Anna, or keep it to herself, until she could talk it over with her fellow pilots.  Neither of the two options was very attractive.  The two know-it-alls, and possibly Rei would tell her 'It took you that long to figure it all out?!'  She stopped that thought, let out a breath, I AM letting my anger interfere with my judgement, she hated being laughed at, or not taken seriously, but none of the Pilot-experts, would actually laugh at her ignorance.  Rei would quietly welcome her into the inner circle of those who knew, and the other two would then point out a few dozen corollaries she hadn't considered yet. She frowned all the way back to the dorm room Maya-Anna was sharing with her.

     She liked being in control, nearly as much as Ranma did, she'd taken a big step out in the world. And she resented that the world didn't treat her as she thought it ought to due to her previous triumphs.  Except the real world didn't own her anything, and regraded all her triumphs as tawdry, trivial things that didn't measure up against the real accomplishments of others.  And the real world plays by much harsher rules, people might be personal enemies, but they won't tolerate mistreatment beyond a certain level.  'I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it', some American politician said that, she thought, it applied.

     Asuka hated 'Wondergirl', but seemed to go out of her way to match her up with Shinji, she was contemptuous of Ranma, because she thought he was going to get killed, just like Roku-kun.  She hadn't managed to get both of the college students to turn on her, but she doubted it would be pleasant if they did.

     Nabiki-Asuka entered the room, glanced over at the book shelves.  She remembered all the books in boxes Asuka had, Nabiki had mistakenly thought they were all school books, here there were books on Medicine, Engineering, Literature, History and Military Strategy.  Nabiki-Asuka noted the two copies of Achtung Panzer! one autographed by every major German General and a few Italian ones, Probably the Generals Asuka looks up to.  The second was worn, annotated and had notes scribbled in the margins.

     That too had been a blow to Nabiki's ego, she wasn't the smartest or the cleverest, she wasn't even close.  She wasn't the master manipulator, or the most ingenious, or the best at what she did, used to do.  She wondered if that had been what had fueled Ranma's behavior, she didn't like what it said about her.  She noted Maya-Anna was sound asleep, with her face in a book, the next day's homework spread on the table.  Nabiki-Asuka wondered if she'd finished it, or if the analyst had been as stumped as Nabiki-Asuka had been.  Why is that girl taking Junior High Classes?  She could teach at the Junior High!

     Nabiki-Asuka covered Maya-Anna with a blanket, and crawled into her own bed.  The other advantage of the German-made ersatz L.C.L. was that it washed out immediately.  She was definitely going to steal the recipes, at least for testing purposes, she hated stinking for hours after climbing out of the plug, no matter how many showers she took.


     "If you send a beam of light through a beam splitter," Professor Nabiki 'Asuka' Tendo, told the student in the lecture hall, "Then send one part of the beam to one end of the universe and the other part to the other end.  Then you do something evil to one beam, the other will react at thesame instant as if you'd done the same to it.  The translation of what Einstein called this, is 'Spooky Action at a distance'.  Because it violated his postulate that nothing could move faster than the speed of light."

     Asuka-Nabiki looked over the shocked face of the students in the Introduction to Physics class at Tokyo University.  "That's enough for today."

     She endured the 'stand, bow, sit,' she'd hoped that at college they'd outgrow it.  The students murmured to each other.

     Kuno came forward, "I had never considered what a storyteller you are."  He'd gotten over that she 'brought home the rice', his inheritance meant neither really had to work, but both did, part-time at what they loved.

     "I have to make the subject interesting," she replied, smiled at her husband, "How did you slip away?"

     "Sasuke and Konatsu decided to take all the children and 'talk shop'.  I allowed it."

     "How magnanimous of you," she teased, he blushed slightly.  She realized he wasn't her ideal choice, but he'd been the only one to offer sympathy when she had caught Kaji with Ukyo, and Kaji hadn't been kissing Ukyo's face.  Then they'd traveled all the way to China, to find a pregnant Shampoo, of course the baby was Kaji's, so was Ukyo's.

     She'd repaid Kuno's help and support by standing with him against his father, and getting decent treatment for his sister, in Germany, where proper psychiatric counseling, drugs and surgery were available and had helped her.  Asuka-Nabiki had also gotten Kuno to avail himself of the first, 'to make sure it was safe for your sister.'  It hadn't changed him outwardly, but now he was a harmless eccentric, instead of a raving lunatic.  All in all, it wasn't a bad life.

     "How is the tidy Akane doing?"

     Kuno laughed at that, "'My ankles are swollen, but I can still teach!'  I stood with Kasumi and Konatsu that she should rest, I believe that you are correct, she is frightened of being a mother."

     She nodded, "So, what do you have in mind?"

     "A love hotel, ropes, whips and chains," Kuno said, studying the ceiling tiles.

     "Oh!" Asuka-Nabiki said delightedly, "I get to tie you up."

     "Yes, Mistress," Kuno said with feigned diffidence.  He bowed low.  Both knew the evening wasn't going to be anything like that.


     Shinji rushed around, as he had for the previous week, checking lights, making sure the plumbing worked, etc.  Until he was satisfied with the results.  He took the elevator to the top floor of the tallest building in the city, and the observation deck there.

     He looked out over the city, his city, skyscrapers poking out of the forested green, wide boulevards with over or undercrossings for pedestrians, rail lines to all the various districts. Everything worked, at least everything he'd checked worked.

     "This is my challenge!" he called to the wind, silently praying he hadn't forgotten anything. There was a pause . . . it seemed to go on forever. . ..

     The light vanished from the original, alien city.  Then from his challenge.  He was alone again, a flat featureless plane.  He looked around, listened for any hint.

     There was none, he woke suddenly, looked around his room, "I lost," he said, "My best wasn't good enough."  He pulled the covers around him, at the sudden chill, and wondered what his failure had cost them, how he and his friends would suffer because he couldn't beat an opponent without their help.  He couldn't do anything alone, he wasn't anything, alone.  He wondered if he should tell them.


     'Damn!'  Ranma heard from the bunk above him, and something hitting a pillow repeatedly.

     "Raccoon?" Ranma asked, "are you all right?"  Frankly, he was glad to be awake and out of that dream.  The explosive had worked, he hoped never to see that creature.  Even Angels were better, they were dangerous and deadly, without being hostile.  That thing had cursed as it died, about eating the entire Eastern Seaboard, Whatever that is? Ranma thought.


     Ranma waited for more, Raccoon always talked too much.

     As the silence continued, Ranma climbed out of bed, stood beside the upper bunk.  He looked at his roommate, who had buried his face in the pillow, "What's wrong?"

     "Nothing," came the muffled answer.

     He sounds more like me, Ranma smiled at that, then got concerned, If that was an attack, what did they throw at him, and the others?  "You want to talk about it?"

     Raccoon raised his head up, Ranma was shocked that his unflappable roommate was crying, "Leave - me - alone."

     Ranma sat down on his bed.  For once he wanted to talk, Raccoon didn't.  Raccoon wouldn't talk to Ranma about something like that, Ranma waited until he thought Raccoon was asleep, had cried himself to sleep.  Then he headed for the bathroom, and nearly collided with Nabiki, who had her head wrapped in a cold towel.

     Ranma poured some cold water on his head, then dried her hair.  "You look terrible."

     Nabiki stared at her with bloodshot eyes, "Saotome, shut up."

     Ranko retreated, she was beginning to wonder how bad a mess the others had gone through.


     From the Diary of Ayami Hiroko

     I saw the pilots arrive, in one big clump, which was unusual, the boss looked terrible, so did the others.  Ayanami and Ikari paired off, and went inside immediately.  The boss didn't want to talk, about anything, and kept glancing at Asuka, Asuka kept glancing at her.  Then they'd turn away, no glares, no insults.  Weird!

     Davis stared at the 'middle distance', seeing nothing.  Ranma was, well subdued for him, the way he was looking around, he actually looked like he was worried about the others.  No, he was probably just keeping his neck limber.

     There was none of the usual insults or banter.  In one way it was pleasant, the rest of the class didn't have to expect war to break out in our midst.  But the smarter ones also realized that one of the things that had saved us, was the pilots were naturally combative.  Take away that, and the Angels might win.

     The ghost played last night, the noise still gives me the shivers, 'Like a thousand tortured souls,' Kensuke called it.  But it sounded happy at the same time.  I told the boss, she grumped it was just someone playing bagpipes, like the Navy said.

     Funny, after last night, I would have expected the boss to be happy.  Ranma had actually behaved himself.  She should be happy, not beaten like she is, like they all are.

     Was there a battle?  A battle we'll never find out about?

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 11: Green Fire

Yet is every man his greatest enemy, and, as it were, his own executioner

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici pt II, sec. 4

Chapter 11

Green Fire

     Jeff and Nabiki stood in the EVA bay in their plugsuits, and watched Shinji, in Unit 01, move out, Ranma, Asuka and Rei were right behind him in their EVAs, the pair was staying behind, again.

     "I sense a continuing pattern in this." Jeff observed, looking wistfully at the four EVAs moving out, "Come back safe," he added quietly.

     "Come on, at least we can watch from the main control room," Nabiki suggested, the morning after her blow up, she needed to mend fences with her roommates.  She'd hoped she could practice on Raccoon, before she moved on to Ranma.

     "And watch, what, exactly?" Jeff turned to face her, and leaned back on the railing, looking around at the technicians and crews preparing for the EVAs' return.  "I gave up my diploma for this, one sortie and that was it," he said bitterly, "One weekend, and I could have flown back to school."

     "At least you've been out there," Nabiki replied, trying not to catch his tenebrous mood, So much for that idea, she thought, He's still pissed at me.

     "Better to have never piloted at all, than to have done so twice, and never again.  Believe me."

     "What's it like?" Nabiki asked, At least he's always willing to lecture.  I can see if it's different from what I remember from the dream.

     "Each unit is different, Unit 00 is all anger and rage, a berserker from Norse legend, or a kamikaze.  Unit 01, I'd bet money it's Shinji's mother, or it thinks it is, that's how I was able to sync with it, I said if Shinji got hurt, I might have to go out after him in it.  Unit 04 is an old warrior, eager to teach all its old tricks." Jeff counted off the EVAs, "I don't know about Unit 02, having Langley there changed things.  The, intimacy, I guess, of the contact is hard to describe.  You have to fight to keep yourself separate, but it isn't trying to draw or drag you in, more - welcoming.  And the feeling of power, I can't describe it, the angels, the real ones, must feel like that."

     "You sound like you miss it," Nabiki said sardonically, That's nothing like my experience, for me, it was a fight to get and maintain control.

     "Attractive and repulsive at the same time," Jeff explained, he seemed troubled by the incompleteness of the explanation.

     He's wondering how much he should share about killing the `Angels`, and the side effects, she thought.

     Alarms blared throughout the bay.

     "Oh, no." Jeff stood out of the way, as troops scrambled for the EVA's plug loading controls.  Nabiki had flattened herself against the wall to avoid being trampled.

     Asuka and Rei used their EVAs to yank Unit 01 back into the access tunnel, the bolt of green fire splashed against the concrete of the tunnel mouth, trying to maintain contact with its target.  They both could hear Shinji screaming inside the plug.

     "Hurry up, Wondergirl!" Asuka cursed as they dragged the damaged, convulsing EVA back down the tunnel.  Ranma risked a peek around the edge of the tunnel, and barely got his EVA's head back, before a second beam slammed into the concrete.

     Jeff and Nabiki helped the crew manhandle the stretcher down the stairs to the unload point, while Unit 00 and Unit 02 shoved Unit 01 back into the restraining cage, and locked it down.

     "Baka, Shinji," Unit 02 seemed to comment in Asuka's voice, on the gaping wound in the EVA's front carapace.  The paint had been burned away, exposing the metal beneath, which had been burnt or corroded away, exposing the organic components, including the EVA's blood red core.  The equipment pulled the plug from the EVA, and the command chair from the plug.

     Jeff and Nabiki stood with the others, to hand the wire basket stretcher carrying Shinji, up to other waiting hands, to take the wounded boy to the medical wing.

     "What happened to him?" Nabiki hadn't seen any external injuries on the boy as he passed.

     "Shock, burns, the pilot experiences what the EVA does, sometimes it's too much." Jeff was climbing down the gantry, to get a look at the damaged carapace of the EVA, he leaned out to touch a small piece of the battered metal, it crumbled to dust under his touch.

     "Get out of there!" someone yelled, "We have to decontaminate!"

     "Yeah." Jeff backed up, glancing at his hand and the metal dust clinging to it, "No problem."

     "That was dumb."  Nabiki yanked him away from the EVA.

     "We are in big trouble."  Jeff headed to the scowling technician, to get decontaminated.

     Asuka showered quickly, she noted Wondergirl in the next stall, taking her own sweet time.  She weighed getting rid of the stench of L.C.L., against checking on Spineless.

     "What are you dawdling over?" she asked angrily.

     Wondergirl turned, stared at her, "We can do nothing for some time.  Curtailing procedures assists no one."  She paused.      Asuka frowned, she hated it when Wondergirl was right, "Don't you want to do something?"

     "Yes," Wondergirl admitted, "But I cannot."

     Even she sounds frustrated, Asuka wanted to hit someone, something, the Angel would do for a start. Why aren't we going out after that thing right now? She noted Wondergirl was still staring at her, "Go finish your shower, you have to be all clean and smelling nice when Spineless wakes up."

     Asuka noted, with some disgust, that Wondergirl eagerly finished her ablutions, Why is it the robots get a love life, and even alone with Kaji, I don't? She considered stealing Spineless away, then washed herself from head to toe twice, to get rid of such disgusting thoughts.

     Misato was sitting on the couch in the corridor outside the medical wing's main surgery, staring at the other couch facing her across the corridor, waiting.  There was nothing else to focus on, and nothing to do.  She completely missed when Nabiki, Davis and Ranma came up.  Nabiki sat next to her, touching her shoulder, silently offering comfort.  She was shocked that the 'Second Three', as she'd once disparagingly referred to them, were here for her, while Asuka and Rei were not.

     "You might want to look through this," Davis set a folder in her lap, "I checked with Doctor Akagi, it's already in the works."

     Ranma and Davis sat opposite the two women, and waited, saying nothing.

     Misato paged through the sketch of the Angel's attack pattern, and a plan to deal with it.  Asuka and Rei arrived in their school uniforms, still wet from their post-decontamination showers.  They all waited in silence for some time, before they realized no answers would be forthcoming.

     "The attack is time-based, not heat or corrosive," Gendo explained to the senior staff, gathered in the conference room, around a large map table with the Angel's location, and the planned start points for the EVAs clearly marked on it.  Gendo glanced over to Davis, who had presented the plan to him, based on what the two of them learned in last night's dream.  "Unit 04 is a high density fused ceramic, like a fired pot.  That is inherently more resistant than the metal and organic components of Units 00, 01 and 02.  Concrete, as evidenced by the entry tunnel, is equally resistant.  What we need to determine, is the cycle rate of the enemy's attack, and the duration of the blast."

     The Angel of Time, Tulzscha, in the form of an half-mile tall pillar of green flame, had positioned itself some distance away from the base, and had drawn itself into an arch.  Only Dr. Akagi and the Commanders knew why, Kaji and Misato didn't know, and right now, didn't care.

     "A very audacious plan, how did you find out about this?" Commander Fuyutsuki asked his colleague and the pilot.

     Jeff decided to drop a bombshell, "I've done extensive research on these creatures, including reading the Necronomicon."  He and the Commander exchanged looks, both turned away.

     Kaji and Misato didn't comprehend any of it, Commander Fuyutsuki and Dr. Akagi were ashen.  Gendo didn't meet anyone's eyes.

     "We'll take it under advisement." Ikari said.  Davis nodded and left quickly.

     "What does that have to do with anything?" Kaji demanded.

     "You don't need to know.  What do you think of the plan as described?" Ikari asked.  He closely examined each of the staff members.

     "On paper, good.  In execution, it could get Pilot Davis killed, and it puts the other three pilots at severe risk," Kaji admitted.

     "I don't like it," Misato added, "I don't believe water will have any effect on these `time flames`, no matter how much can be pumped in, and the exercise expends all the power of Unit 04, unless Demisu or Shinji pilots it, this looks like a grandstand play to get him in an EVA again."

     "To what end?  To do his job, or get killed?" Ritsuko asked Misato, "The latter, is not very productive."

     "You obviously think this will work.  I'd like to know why you're even entertaining the idea."  Misato balled her fists, confronting Ritsuko.

     "We are limited on the time available," Fuyutsuki said, "The Angel's seeming irrational behavior, can't be irrational, we must engage and destroy it, as quickly as possible.  This plan allows us to engage in only a few hours.  Unless Operations or Special Tactics has another idea that can be implemented quickly?"

     Neither Misato nor Kaji had an idea, especially one that would be ready so quickly.

     "Very well," Ikari said, staring at his subordinates, "Do you have any suggestions on the implementation of the plan as a whole.  Or minor adjustments?"  Gendo had already decided to adopt the plan as it stood, he doubted they could add anything that he already hadn't.

     "Not without knowing the cycle time of the enemy's primary attack," Kaji admitted, "Until we know that, no attack can be made."

     "I would recommend a bombardment of the target by naval gunfire, from out of the direct line-of-sight," Misato began, "Find out if we can destroy whatever this thing is after, before it can find it."

     "No," Ikari said, "Whatever it is after, is valuable to us as well, I won't have it destroyed."

     "We're assuming it is after something.  It may just be trapped, until dismissed or destroyed," Ritsuko said, "It may have slain its summoners, and is simply trapped here.  It attacked the EVAs as it would any natural enemy, there is no evidence it's after anything."

     "Agreed," Ikari said, "Dismissed."

     The senior staff left, Fuyutsuki turned Ikari, "Your son . . . "

     "We all knew the risks," Ikari said flatly, "If Katsuragi continues to deteriorate, we may have other options."

     "Should we begin the search for other candidates?" Fuyutsuki asked.

     "Let's see how well they face this challenge, we'll plan our course in the aftermath."  Ikari sat back and steepled his fingers, considering the future.


     Asuka noted the pilots had independently assembled in the corridor outside surgery in the medical wing.  Horseface and Ice Princess sat on one couch side-by-side.  She leaned against the opposite wall, next to Wondergirl, who sat on the other couch, both she and Wondergirl seemed to be studying the floor.

     "Would you sit down," Horseface said to Raccoon, who was pacing the corridor, "You're making me nervous."

     That makes two of us, she thought.

     "Oh, I can't have that," Raccoon shot back, "In case you've forgotten, that's my plan in there.  And they won't tell us about Shinji.  Frankly I'd like to know if he lived . . . or died, if he's all right, and if, or when, he's coming back to us.  I want to know what's happening, to plan the next step."

     "Well sit down anyway," she told him, "You're wearing a hole in the floor."

     "Langley, I care about as much - "  He marched towards her.

     "CHILDREN!" Ice Princess shouted as she stepped between them, "We already have one pilot under medical care," she glared at her and Raccoon in turn, "Let's not have any others."

     Raccoon frowned, resumed pacing, farther down the corridor, away from the others, she and Horseface gave exasperated sighs.  Wondergirl watched each of the pilots successively.

     "Where's Ranko anyway?" Raccoon asked as his path brought him near them, "You'd think she'd want to know about Shinji's condition."

     "Maybe she's got the good sense not to be around you," she said.

     "Yeah, I'm a bucket of laughs right now," Raccoon said, continuing his pacing.

     Asuka scowled, I hate this!  Hate waiting, hate not knowing, hate not doing.  "Why can't they just tell us?"

     "Asuka, why don't you pace with him.  Then the rest of us can get a nap," Ice Princess told her angrily.

     "I will wait," Wondergirl said.

     "Who didn't guess that?" she said.

     "Langley, enough." Raccoon marched over, stopped in front of her.  He said gently, "We're all anxious, just admit it."

     She pushed off from the wall, stood nose-to-nose with him, "I don't need to be lectured by the pacing Raccoon!"  Can't you manage any anger at what's happening?

     "At least she's not yelling at Rei anymore," Raccoon taunted, "Kiss me."

     She considered it for an instant, It would shock him and the others.  It would serve him right! instead she just screamed at him, calling in to question his intelligence, his devotion to duty, his sanity, in German and English; then stalked off to the farthest corner of the room.  She leaned against the corner and resumed glaring at the others from there.      Maya entered the corridor.

     And almost retreated, she noted the analyst's terror, as all five pilots suddenly stood up and turned towards her.  Asuka waited for Maya to pause and gather herself.

     "He'll be all right," Maya told them.

     She watched Maya react to the relief on her and the other pilots' faces.  Someone laughed.  "He needs rest and quiet," she admonished them.

     "May we see him?" Wondergirl asked.

     "Not yet," Maya told them, "He hasn't regained consciousness, and his room is being kept sterile to prevent infection."

     "Thank you," Ice Princess told her, and herded the other pilots away.

     "Let's go kill this thing," Horseface said as he left.  He got growls of agreement from all the others.

     Even Rei, Asuka noted, Interesting.

     The senior staff and the pilots stood in the conference room overlooking the command deck.  They'd gathered around the map table, representing the portion of the harbor and the strip of land where the `Angel` was waiting.  The anger of all the pilots was obvious, they were eager to repay their comrade's injuries.  Nabiki looked over the faces, she'd seen that kind of grim determination before, but here, the target of that determination wouldn't live out the day, once they were released.  Even Ranma would be part of the killing.  She wasn't sure she like that.

     "The approach will be by Unit 04, towing Units 00, 01, and 02 on minimum standby.  They will be placed approximately 300 meters from the target. At precisely 18:00 hours, you will simultaneously launch your attack."  Misato showed them on a large map table. Ritsuko and Kaji stood in the background.

     "Will Unit 01 be repaired in time?" Nabiki asked.

     "We're rushing repairs now," Ritsuko said, looked at Raccon expectantly.

     "Sounds like I volunteer again," Raccoon joked.  Ritsuko nodded.

     "I take Unit 01?" Ranma asked.

     "Yes, Rei in Unit 00, Asuka in Unit 02," Misato said, nodding to each in turn.

     "Who's taking Unit 04?" Nabiki asked, knowing the answer.

     "Unit 04 will have a special device that will shield it from the attack that damaged Unit 01," Misato told them, "It will make its diversionary attack at 17:59 and 57 seconds.  That should give the Angel time to acquire the target, and fire.  Its attack lasts a maximum of 37 seconds, cycle time between shots is 27 seconds.  That gives the three attacking EVAs 61 seconds to make their initial attack, and if necessary, retreat back into the water, to avoid counterfire.  Unit 04 will draw its fire again, and the other three EVAs will be able to make their second attack.  Beyond that, we don't expect Unit 04's power to hold.  The EVAs will have to withdraw, and we'll have to develop another plan."

     Nabiki wondered if Misato would be pleased or angry about that happening.  She was surprised when Misato addressed her.

     "Pilot Tendo, you will take Unit 04, and place the special equipment, while repairs are being made on Unit 01.  Asuka, Rei, Ranma - you will accompany Kaji, and receive briefing on the target's special powers and abilities.  What to look out for, and what we expect it to do.  Dismissed."

     Nabiki watched Misato leave, Ritsuko collected Raccoon and her.  Kaji collected Rei, Asuka and Ranma.  Both groups initially stayed together.

     "What's Misato so mad about?" Asuka asked Kaji.

     "She doesn't like getting shown up by anyone," Kaji said.  As they walked into the corridor, Misato was waiting.

     "I should take the diversionary position," Rei told the adults.

     "Don't be so eager to get yourself killed Wondergirl," Asuka said grimly, "I think Raccoon knows this is a one-way trip for him.  He gets to go out in a blaze of glory."

     "That's not it," Ranma cut off Raccoon's protest, "It's his idea, it's only right he take the risk.  Leaders lead from the front."  Ranma missed Misato's wince at that explanation.

     Nabiki didn't think that had anything to do with it, Ranma of course, put it in terms of honor.  Asuka wanted to be back in combat.  Nabiki suspected Rei wanted to avenge Shinji, and do her job: killing Angels.  She couldn't figure out Raccoon's motivation, or his silence.  She was also worried that no one seemed to think this was going to work, yet they were all eagerly, or grimly going ahead with it.


     Nabiki loved the feeling of power and movement of EVA Unit 04, as she swam through the harbor, dodging ships and underwater obstacles, and placed, what looked like an oversized concrete umbrella, in the mud of the harbor bottom.  And this is just like swimming through a pool, she tried to analyze her own exhilaration, It isn't even combat.  Which the pilots seem to have a mixed opinion of.

     She was too deep for the Angel to detect, or perhaps it knew it couldn't effectively attack through meters of water.  Maybe this crazy idea does have a basis in fact, she thought, while the accompanying submarines and divers emplaced a dozen heavy, underwater pumps.  Other teams of divers laid cables to secured areas, to power the pumps.

     She could almost understand why someone would risk life and limb, and sanity, for another chance to pilot this machine.

     "Ritsuko?" Nabiki asked as she worked, "I'm going to be in reserve on this, aren't I?"

     "Sorry.  Shinji's still recovering, and there are only four EVA units.  Ranma can pilot Unit 01, Asuka can only really pilot Unit 02, you can only pilot Unit 04 or 00, and Rei's a better pilot in Unit 00," Ritsuko told her.

     "I'm better in Unit 04, except underwater," she argued, "And the battle is taking place on land."  Nabiki kept wondering how much was the mistrust her roommates had for her.  No, it isn't about me, it has nothing to do with me, she thought, That almost makes it worse.  "You're smart enough to evade my real question, just like Misato did."  Nabiki was pulling back slowly, making sure the pump hoses and power cables hadn't snagged on each other.

     "I think you know the answer," Ritsuko said.

     "I just want to hear somebody actually say it," Nabiki griped, "Why can't it be me, or somebody else?"  Are you sending out the least qualified pilot . . . for a reason? she thought.

     "You tell me," Ritsuko suggested, "Arrogance, a 14-year-old's feeling of invincibility, confidence."

     Nabiki grimaced, she was near the end of her pack's power, the subs would have to tow her out, and back to base, and she wasn't towing three EVAs on the way in.  She believed in taking risks, some risks weren't just cutting it close, they were cutting it clear through the bone.  Misato might have blindly agreed to this, she loved showy plans, and was blase about risking the pilots, Nabiki thought Ritsuko was different.

     The only reason she could see for the pilot assignments, was `fuel economy`, her roommate could get 8% more time from the power packs than the next best, Shinji, who was 5% better than the standard: Rei and herself.  Asuka was 2% below, Ranma 6% below that.  That worked out to roughly eight minutes of normal operation or 96 seconds of AT field use, out of the hour two power packs provided.  And time is the only thing that mattered, not safety, or even survival.  Eight minutes or 96 seconds, is a hell of a thing to gamble your life away on, Nabiki thought.

     Shinji woke, saw the gray ceiling he'd seen before, he recognized he was in the medical bay.  He looked over at Rei, who was watching him, watching over him.

     "We are launching an operation to destroy the Angel," she told him quietly.

     "Am I part of it?" he sat up, then embarrassedly recovered himself with the sheet.

     "No.  I, Pilot Saotome, Roku-kun and the Pilot of Unit 02 will engage the enemy."  Rei paused, consulted a notebook, "I brought you food and soft clothes." She indicated the cart with the tray on top shelf and a package on the shelf beneath.  "Pilot Tendo will be in reserve, she might appreciate your presence."  Rei snapped the notebook closed, and stood up.  "The attack is scheduled for 18:00 hours, please be ready an hour before."  She turned to leave, stopped, looked at him.  Her expression changed slightly, he'd never seen her look that way before, "I am pleased you have recovered."  She left, Shinji stared at the food and clothes.

     He shook his head and wondered what it was all about.  He didn't know why he felt so strange, that there would be a battle, against something that had nearly killed him, and he would be on the sidelines.  He felt almost . . . criminal.

     Ranma watched Asuka stare down at Raccoon, who was seemingly sleeping on the bench in the pilots' locker room.  Raccoon had returned from repairing Unit 01, took a shower, then put on a clean plugsuit, Asuka had barged in while Raccoon was dressing, and stood over him when he laid down for a nap.

     Ranma had tried to suggest she was on the boy's side, she'd growled at him.  He'd wisely retreated.

     "You don't have to do this, I could, or Tendo, or even Baka-Shinji, he's back," Asuka told him.

     "That's good news.  Worried?  That's not like you," Raccoon asked distantly, "It's only a minor one, the handling is tricky, that's all.  You know I won't die, you were there too."

     "You have every reason not to do this, it was your plan, you did your part.  You don't have to play the hero, take all the danger."  Asuka turned and glared at Ranma.  "Unit 02 is made of stone, I can do that job."

     Ranma thought she sounded worried, a few days ago, he would have discarded the idea.  Then again, a few days ago, he wouldn't have believed that any of the pilots could have fought a war to the death with demons.  Now he knew they had, and won.  He couldn't figure it out, if either of them treated him the way they treated each other . . . well, he would have beaten up Raccoon, he wasn't sure what he'd do about Asuka.

     "Ten years ago," Raccoon said tiredly, "I saved a certain sorrel wildcat from a trap.  I acquired a clear responsibility that day.  I'm hardly entitled to run off and hide, leaving it stuck in a tree, now am I?"      Asuka dumped him off the bench onto the floor, and silently stormed off.  Ranma couldn't figure out if she was furious, or trying not to cry, when she left.

     "She loves me," Raccoon told Ranma from the floor, "It's obvious."

     "You're nuts, that's what's obvious," he retorted as he walked over to stare down at the boy, "At least to anyone with any brains."

     "So who told you?" Raccoon asked as he stood up, stretched, "Don't tell me," he paused with a look of intense concentration, "Somebody slipped a note to you in your banana ration."

     "Considering you came up with this idea, I wouldn't mention bananas around it."

     "An original insult!  Saotome-sama!"  He covered his heart with his hands, "I'm titillated, I'm ecstatic, I'm petrified, it must mean the world really is coming to an end.  Now I'm worried."

     Ranma shook his head and muttered something unkind about tanuki as he left.

     Commander Ikari was meeting with the Committee, not the monoliths, but the actual representations of the members.

     "Ikari?!" Kehl seemed surprised.

     So they were sent with your knowledge or approval, Ikari filed the data away.

     The Committee's shock was quickly hidden, and the tedium of the meeting proceeded apace.  Ikari could have checked the elements off a list.  After the dream when he'd been reunited with Yui, however temporarily, he was less pleased about dealing with these fools, and their assumption that they still controlled everything.  He'd been given a new infusion of what had originally driven him to this course.  The Committee and SEELE had always been a tool to achieve his goals, he was not a means for them to achieve their's.  The Human Instrumentality Project, remembering who his masters really were, etc. were all discussed to death, practically using the same words that were spoken in Fuyutsuki's last meeting with the monoliths.  Gendo knew the monoliths were the real committee members, these were just their public, front men, working from a preprepared script.  He took the questions with all the good grace he could manage.

     They don't realize we have been and are under attack! Gendo realized, for the dream couldn't have been anything but.  I can guess which of the Great Old Ones could be attacking, completely out of sequence and undetected by the Old Men! Gendo hid a smile, The scenario is already out of their control, and they don't know it.  It gave him the freedom of action he needed, and didn't have before.  He'd tell them of the attack after they made another of their pronouncements of their control over everything.  All he had to say to cover himself, was 'The Children never mentioned it', and so far they hadn't, not even discussing it among themselves, even Rei had not mentioned it to him.  That was disturbing, but not unexpected, if Saotome and Davis had `exchanged`, it was possible that Rei had exchanged with another pilot, and it had traumatized her, either the experience, or the separation, as it had him.

     He missed Yui, letting him be with her, even vicariously, only to have it stripped away, was painful, but it renewed his determination.

Call to War

     The pilots were all in the elevator to the EVA bay.  Only Nabiki and Shinji weren't in their plugsuits.  Shinji glanced from face to face, normally he liked quiet, but this silence had the feeling of being pointed, both sharp and aimed.  He noted the different demeanors that still translated the same, 'I'm going to kill that thing.'  Asuka's gaze seemed trying to burn a hole in the wall; Ranma was quietly tensing, then relaxing his muscles; Rei had nodded to Shinji, then stood with her eyes closed; Raccoon looked at his hands, his fingers going through complicated patterns.  Shinji glanced over to Nabiki, who was also minutely examining her silent comrades.

     "So why do you pilot the EVA?" Shinji asked Raccoon.  He'd asked Asuka, and gotten a predictable response.  He'd asked Rei, and was still trying to figure out what she'd meant by 'EVA is life'.  He'd asked Ranma, and gotten no answer at all.  He wanted to know why they stayed, why they thought they had to do this.

     "I haven't, except that once." Raccoon smiled.

     "I mean why are you still here?"  Shinji didn't know why he himself remained, he wasn't needed.  He'd failed in his challenge yesterday night, then he'd lost against this Angel.  Asuka and Rei had to save him.  He couldn't win without the others, maybe he couldn't survive without them.  He was a burden, none of them said it, he wanted to know if they believed it.  He didn't know why he should stay, even if they didn't think he was a burden.  The others were more at ease fighting than he was.  He didn't think he'd ever match those grim expressions, he'd never be able to divorce himself from the idea he was killing, and `eating`, other intelligent creatures.  Even if they were hostile, no one had ever tried to talk with them, 'You can't,' they told him, when they didn't simply laugh at him for suggesting such a thing.

     One tried to communicate with me, he realized, the challenge had been non-lethal combat, one of their enemies didn't intend to simply march up, and take on the EVAs, it would fight the pilots themselves, an attack that was more direct and indirect, both at once.  Why? Shinji wondered.

     Raccoon considered, the smile vanished, the lights in the elevator seemed to dim, "I was trained as a warrior against Chaos's darkness, by a cabal of Serpent Man and Dragon sorcerers.  Inculcated in their deepest magics, schooled in the darkest lore of our enemies."  Raccoon's icy tone and manner was terrifying.

     Shinji felt he had loosed some primordial, malefic force into the tiny elevator.  That minute part of him that came from the things he'd absorbed, yammered in terror.

     "Then, implanted with alien technology of the Great Race, to further enhance my ability to hunt and kill those things that lurk in the darkness."

     Shinji and the other pilots now glanced around furtively, hoping to find some here-to-fore hidden means of escape, as their transformed friend paced the miniature, descending room, staring coldly into each face.  "Then I was cursed by an ancient meta-god, to live to see the dawn of the last day, to battle my foes, but not live to see the end.  Only then, will I be permitted to die."  The pilots had flattened themselves against the walls of the elevator.  Ranma's hand stabbed at the emergency stop, but kept missing.  Even Rei's equanimity had been shattered.

     Raccoon grimaced in pain, "After all that," Raccoon continued in his menacing tone, staring from one to the other, "Not fighting these things would void my warrantee."

     Face faults and screams of outrage all around.

     "Hey Langley?" Raccoon shouted, "Is your hair naturally that color, or do you wash it in the blood of your fallen enemies."

     Asuka growled at him, "It's naturally this color, but for you, I'll make an exception."

     "I'm an Ivy Leaguer, a blue-blood.  Your hair will end up like Ayanami-san's.  But I'm a Harvard man, so maybe it'll be Crimson.  Anyway, it will clash with your suit and your EVA."

     Shinji tried to get his heart rate and breathing back to normal, resolving never to ask Raccoon another serious question.  That's why they need me, he thought, glancing at the others, They need one pilot who didn't start crazy, to gauge against the others.

     Raccoon looked at all the others, "What's gotten into all of you anyway?  Am I really that bad a pilot?  If not, then why are all of you acting like this?  Yes, Shinji-san got hurt, I'm not degrading or belittling that."  He nodded to Shinji.

     Shinji nodded back, glad that the conversation's direction had changed so radically, Another tall tale, to scare us, then perk us up.

     "But you act like this is the end of the world, it's just a minor Angel, we'll kill it, and go home before sunset.  What's got you so worried about this one in particular?"

     "Dreams," Nabiki said quietly.

     Shinji looked at the floor, he noted the others didn't look at each other.

     "Yeah," Asuka added.

     "They were just dreams - " Raccoon said.

     "You didn't act like they were 'Just dreams' last night," Ranma accused.

     "I've since remembered who and what I am," Raccoon replied coldly.

     Shinji noted Nabiki's interest, and that Rei had stepped close to him, almost touching, while staring at Asuka.  He knew his failure would cost them, he accepted his wounding as a just penalty.  But the others were all taking it personally, More personally than you, he realized, They are madder you got hurt than you are?! Shinji wasn't sure how to react to that.

     "Somebody got hurt," Raccoon said, "It was inevitable."

     "We were hurt in training," Rei added, she looked over at Shinji.

     "Ayanami-san and Raccoon survived," Shinji said, Partially because of my actions,  "I survived."  Shinji was uncomfortable trying to support the others.  Typically, he tried to stay away from them, and their seemingly endless, angry sparking, one off another.  To be the cheerleader, rather than the one receiving the encouragement . . . .

     The elevator came to a stop, opened onto the EVA bay, and the waiting plugs for the four EVAs.

     "Well, let's get to it," Asuka said, as she marched out of the elevator.

     Shinji thought it sounded forced, then she brightened.

     "Well Spineless, we'll bring you back its head on a platter, just don't let Misato cook it," she told them.

     "It has no head," Rei corrected.

     "It's a figure of speech, Wondergirl!" Asuka told her.

     "Yes, Ayanami-san," Raccoon said, "We can expect that from Saotome - "


     "We expect more from you," Raccoon ignored Ranma's interruption.  Rei nodded.

     "Are you saying I'm stupid?" Ranma demanded as he caught up to the other pilot.

     "No, of course not, I'm leaving it for the others to infer," Raccoon replied.      Nabiki sighed, "I almost feel sorry for that Angel, when they go after it."

     Shinji smiled and nodded.

     "The Old Men weren't happy to see you," Fuyutsuki had waited, outside the conference room, expecting to be called in to explain why he'd been taking Gendo's place, it never happened.

     "They didn't understand," Gendo told him as he exited the room, "And they aren't happy about that."

     "The dreams."

     "They didn't know, and I don't intend to tell them.  Who would you expect, the Dread Dreamlord, or the Crawling Chaos?" Gendo asked.

     "Without questioning the Children, I couldn't say for certain.  The 'Dread Lord' doesn't understand humans well enough, the Chaos would have never made these subtle nightmares," Fuyutsuki considered, "A new player, or an undocumented feature?"

     Gendo didn't know, that worried him.

     Shinji stood with Nabiki in the EVA bay, and they watched the EVAs move out.  It was the first time he'd watched the EVAs heading into battle.  He didn't have to be here, they didn't need him.  He felt very strange with Saotome in `his` seat, and Raccoon in Saotome's.  Even though he'd nearly died the last time he went out, he found he wanted to be with the others.

     "It's no fun, sitting and watching," Tendo-san told him.

     "I feel guilty, that it should be me," he replied.

     "Come on, Search and Rescue offered to let us watch."  The pair headed for the vehicle bays, where the rescue teams were preparing for all manner of disasters.

Asuka in Repose

     Asuka watched Unit 04 moving like a crocodile through the water, dragging her Unit 02, and Units 01 and 00 along.  She'd suggested taking point in Unit 02, and had Dr. Akagi point out all the metal and organic parts that could conceivably be attacked, Not certainly, but conceivably.  As if concrete patches couldn't armor them, she thought.  No communications, no active sensors, were permitted, the EVAs were as `dead` as they could make them.

     The Units were dropped off, and settled into the mud at the bottom of the harbor.  Asuka's only reality now was the countdown timer, and her prog knife.

     She intended to kill that thing on their first attempt.  Horseface and Wondergirl can help, but they better not get in my way, she thought, Twenty minutes.  They were early, Couldn't they drop a depth charge as a signal or something? she wondered at Japanese military planning, and the cute curlicues they insisted on.  Fast, hard and unexpected, and above all simple were her watchwords in battle.  Might be useful on Kaji too, she smiled at that, then frowned, saddened by remembering his pursuit of seemingly every girl except her, in the dream.  She had to wonder about that, and if he did anything with Misato's body when he/she was alone.  Asuka hurled that thought as far away as she possibly could, but it came back that Kaji would have a wonderful opportunity to discover what worked on Misato, and what didn't.  She decided she'd concentrate on her memories, instead of speculations, after all, despite rumors, no one knew for certain, they were lovers, or really wanted to be again.

     She remembered she and Raccoon had fought in the Dreamlands of Earth, and in the alien world of El Nureenen's stronghold, and their one ironclad rule: 'No plan ever survives contact with reality!  So they're just frameworks to make changes on.'  It was a good, workable system, it brought them victories, when many other Generals and Admirals only got casualties, or got themselves killed.  This one seemed too much like a Misato-created Faberge egg-type of plan, pretty, complicated, Pretty complicated, she smirked, but not robust enough to take severe handling, and not enough alternatives to account for changing conditions.  It made her FURIOUS!

     A better plan would also take the characteristics of the pilots into account.  It's not the case here, she reminded herself, Misato-sama's work of art can't be trifled with, under pain of death.  Amateurs! she growled inwardly.  She wondered how many pilots that kind of slipshod operation would cost them.

     Then she had the terrible thought that Misato didn't care how many pilots were lost, as long as the, her, enemies all died.  Anna's brother had died of the same stupidity in Germany.  They'd never followed the American or British plan of so many missions, then return home to train the next batch.

     Gunther had been surrounded by a half-dozen `green` Americans who were at least 70-80% as good as the American veterans, and Gunther's wingmen/squadron members weren't even 10% as good as he was.  He'd gotten four of the enemy, the other two got him, and the rest of the flight of eight trainees.

     That's probably why they've never proof-tested the ejection system, Asuka thought, Didn't Japanese pilots fly without parachutes?  She glanced to where Horseface probably was, To prove their courage and `honor`, she sneered at that, and waited, patted Unit 02's controls, We'll get it, don't you worry.  She thought of the other pilots: Wondergirl did as she was told, but she was no dummy; Horseface was a dummy, but an inspired fighter.  With her higher sync rate, greater experience and combat-specialized EVA, she would probably be able to beat him, no definitely, As long as I can keep him out of his EVA.  And Spineless, she had to admit, out of the EVA she politely despised him, in the EVA, he terrified her.  Of all of them, he was the only one she knew she couldn't beat EVA to EVA, she just wished she could blend the two, some of Spineless's caution and thoughtfulness, with 'the Pilot of Unit 01's' fire and infinite well of determination.

     Maybe that's why I'm pushing him so hard, she considered, Trying to break through, get the two of them to cooperate.  She glanced at the countdown timer, it hadn't moved much, going earlier would get her killed, if not by the enemy, then Misato would skin her alive for not following orders.

     And people wonder why I'm angry all the time, she grimaced at that thought.

Clash of Arms

     Nabiki and Shinji climbed out of the back of the half-track.  They were parked on a hill nearly half a kilometer away from the action, as close as they dared get.  With a top speed of 48 km/hr, they were 45 seconds away, the rest of the crew stood around, or smoked, ready to reembark at a moment's notice.

     Shinji glanced at his watch, "Now," he saw the start time pass.

     Right on cue, Unit 04 leapt out of the water and attacked.  A huge fog of water from the odd-`umbrella` protected it from the flames the creature hurled at it, Tulzscha, something in Shinji's mind whispered, as the creature's attack stabilized, the other three EVAs appeared, slashing at the huge arc of green flame with their progressive knives.

     "SHIT!" their driver observed, as the arc disengaged one end of itself from the ground, and slammed into Unit 00.  The blow lacked the corrosive force that had hurt Shinji.  Unit 00 didn't stand up immediately, Shinji wondered how bad Ayanami-san was hurt.

     Suddenly facing a flailing opponent, Unit 01 and 02 couldn't adequately press their attack.

     "It's not supposed to do that!  Is it?" Shinji desperately asked Nabiki.

     She shook her head, staring at the battle.  As helpless to intervene as he was.

     At the appointed time, Unit 01 and 02 leapt back in the water.  Unit 00 was still having trouble standing.

     Tulzscha ignored Unit 04, and concentrated on Unit 00 and Rei.

     "Ayanami!" Shinji yelled.

     Unit 04 pivoted, and banked the water column off an AT field, giving Unit 00 the same protective shower Unit 04 had initially enjoyed, as the time flames flashed some of the water to steam, other parts solidified into ice, whatever that water's `fate` in the future.  Unit 04 covered Unit 00's crawling retreat into the harbor's depths.

     "Get out of there!" Nabiki shouted as the twisting column moved to its sole tormentor.  She turned to the SAR team, "Do you have a - command radio?"

     "Yeah," one of the men waved her inside, setting the headband like a nerve clip on her, as she sat down inside the halftrack.

     "Wondergirl, Horseface, you okay?" Asuka's voice came over the speakers.

     "Yeah!"  "Hai."

     "Why didn't you tell us it could do that!?" Asuka demanded, "You said it was fixed!"

     "Aim for the nonmoving base," Misato shouted back.

     "Incoming!" the driver yelled, and slammed the half-track into gear.  Unit 04 was in the air, flipping end over end, under intense assault by Tulzscha, both flames and battering.  Its defensive weapon nowhere to be seen.  As the other three EVAs raced in to attack, Shinji watched in horror as the huge machine took a solid hit, and flew farther into the air.  It reached its apogee, and began its decent.  Someone grabbed Shinji from behind, and pulled him inside the moving vehicle.

     He'll be killed, he thought, as Unit 04 crashed into the hill less than 50 meters from where they had been parked.

     "Kill it!" Asuka's voice shouted, "We're almost out of power."

     Shinji glanced out the open back of the half-track as it swung around, he saw the knives of the three EVAs slash at the flailing creature.  Ranma's martial arts seemed to give him the advantage.  While Asuka seemed to know where the creature would be, and wasn't there when the attack arrived, but her knife was, wounding it horribly.  Ayanami seemed unsteady, and the least skilled, but was doing her best.

     "How much do you know about rescue?" Nabiki demanded of him.

     "What Roku-kun showed me," he replied.

     "They're getting nothing from the plug," she told him.

     He gulped, I should have gone.  It should be me lying dead out there, not someone else.

     "Keep cool, everyone!" the team leader shouted over the travel noise, "We haven't lost a pilot yet.  There are plenty of reasons for loss of signal."

     That he didn't elaborate on them, worried Shinji even more.

     They arrived in moments.  The crew piled out, swarming the fallen EVA.  They manually ejected the plug, one used Raccoon's new wrench to open the emergency hatch.  Nothing came out, the L.C.L. smelled worse than ever, and had the consistency of pudding.

     "Shovels!" someone yelled.  Shinji wasn't waiting, he took a deep breath.  "Shinji!" he heard as he dove in, half-walking, half-burrowing through the stuff.  His skin tingled, and a noise sang in his ears.  He didn't let it distract him, he knew where the command chair was by instinct, the others didn't.  He could get Raccoon out of it, no he couldn't, the pilot wasn't there!

     He kept holding his breath, searched around by feel and memory, finding the cables that led to the plugsuit.  He was running out of air, and was seeing colored spots dance before him in the darkness.  He didn't need his eyes, only his fingers, as he moved to the `bottom` of the plug.

     Something brushed his shoulder, then a hand closed on it, One of the S.A.R. people, he was graying out, the fumes from the gelatinous L.C.L. were making him dizzy.  The wires ended with a body, he grabbed it and began dragging, whoever was behind him dragged at him.  His world contracted to the grip his hands had, and the force dragging him backward.

     It should be me, not somebody else, just me.

     Nabiki hoped Shinji had found something, when he started backing up, she dragged him backward, moving quickly through this material was almost impossible, the smell was making her dizzy and see spots.  Somewhere on the way back to the hatch, someone grabbed her shoulders and pulled, another put an arm around her waist and pulled.

     Unless someone has three arms! she thought, realized the stuff was seriously affecting her.

     She gasped fresh air as she broke clear of the curdled L.C.L..  Asuka had her around the waist, Unit 00 had a fingertip on each of her shoulders, gently dragging back.  Shinji also broke free and gasped.  The brown lump Shinji was dragging, was hosed off as were she, Asuka and Shinji, unlike them, it wasn't breathing.  Nabiki bent over remembering her first aid training, she opened Raccoon's mouth, "The L.C.L. inside is still liquid!" she could feel a weak pulse.  How much time has passed? she asked herself as one of the SAR people held the unconscious pilot upside down, How much time do we have left?

     She watched the black liquid drain out of Raccoon's mouth, a man started trying whatever they tried for resuscitation in 1947, she pushed him out of the way.  She tipped Raccoon's head back, pinched his nose closed, and breathed directly in his mouth.  "Breathe dammit!" she ordered, he disobeyed.  She kept at it, until a medic and a piece of equipment took over the job, as they took him away in an ambulance.

     "We have to decontaminate you," the team leader told her and Shinji, to prevent them from following.

     Asuka and Nabiki sat on opposite couches in the corridor outside the medical wing, not staring at each other.  They'd both long since dried from their showers, "Where'd you learn that trick anyway?" Asuka asked.

     Awfully quietly, Nabiki thought, "My father studied in China," Nabiki told her, she was glad the answer satisfied the girl.

     Shinji had collapsed during decontamination, despite her injuries, Rei was watching over him.  Nabiki wondered where Ranma was, she was kind of angry he wasn't here, Not that he could do anything except wait.

     "They'll live," Dr. Akagi came out of the surgery.  Nabiki noted that Asuka relaxed almost as much as she did.

     "Since I doubt I could pry you three out of here, without a tank or an EVA, I sent Ranma to get you three a change of clothes."

     Nabiki nodded, He was doing something.

     "Neither one is out of danger.  We don't know the effect of the material," Dr. Akagi told them.

     It worried Nabiki that she hadn't suffered any lasting effect, but both Raccoon and Shinji were out of commission.

     "We've got a room for the three girls, and another for Ranma," Ritsuko paused, "What?  No joke about a glass of water reducing it to one room?"

     "When will we know?" Asuka asked with a forced calm.

     "I don't know," Ritsuko admitted.

     "That seems to be an epidemic around here," Asuka marched off in a fury.

     Ritsuko looked embarrassed.  Nabiki was torn between which of the two to stay with.

     Rei looked around in the hospital room, the same one she had spoken to him in, only a few hours ago.  She sat next to his bed, looking at Shinji sleeping in the oxygen tent, with tubes leading from his arms to various bottles hung near his bedside.  It was almost as if the last few hours hadn't actually happened.  Although she knew they had.  She'd failed to protect him this morning, she'd failed to protect him and Roku-kun this evening.  She shifted uncomfortably, with her left leg and arm in casts, she was off-balance.  The bandages covering the side of her face also obscured one eye, and eliminated her depth perception.  That was trivial as far as she was concerned, the body was unnecessary in piloting.  Only the mind and spirit mattered.  Where is his mind, his spirit? she wondered.

     When the Second shoved the door open, it startled her.  It startled her even more that the Second self-consciously caught the door, before it slammed into the wall and made a noise.

     "How is he?" she asked.

     Rei thought the Second was more subdued than she had ever seen her before.  "There has been no change," Rei told her.

     Instead of speaking, the Second nodded.

     "Ranma, has a change of clothes, and Ritsuko arranged beds for us," she told Rei, "So we can stay near them."

     Not 'Horseface'? Rei wondered.

     "Come on, Rei, there's nothing more to do here," the Second said.

     Rei was worried, the Second didn't seem to be herself, she hoped it was a side-effect of the petrified L.C.L., the Second Children had run over to the rescue site in Unit 02, as soon as it was clear Tulzscha was dead, and bailed out to assist.  Rei had hurried as well, but took a more measured pace, especially because of her injuries, and she'd remained inside her EVA for the same reasons.  But the Second's behavior was not what Rei had expected.  She was worried by it, radical changes in such a universal constant, disturbed her deeply.

     The Second led Rei to another room in the medical wing.  Inside, Nabiki-kun was arranging the beds head to head to head, as they arrived.  The Second led her to one, and helped her undress, "Wondergirl says Shinji had no change either."

     Rei was comforted by the return to the nickname, but not completely, the Second was being too solicitous, and Nabiki-kun obviously did not consider her behavior aberrant.  The Second helped her to lie down, then gently tucked her in.  The other two silently settled in.  From their usual behavior, Rei guessed they would stay awake and talk, about important matters or useless trivia, talking was important to them.  She was extremely surprised that silence reigned among them, she didn't break it, she had nothing she wanted to talk about, and speculation was useless.  Rei closed her eyes and went to sleep.

Fist Full of Pilots

     The cowboy walked into the Arizona bar, out of a desert downpour.  Eyes of the customers appraised the youth.  Hat, cheap duster: just another saddle bum.  Stangely old, cold, blue eyes glanced around.  Caught sight of the quarry.  The spurs jangled up behind him, "Evan MacKinin?"

     "Whose askin', boy?" MacKinin didn't think much of a smooth cheeked, high-voiced youth.  The wanted poster dropped onto the table.  MacKinin shoved the youth back and reached for his gun.  A fist shot out, knocking MacKinin's hand away from his gun, then knocking him to the floor.  Before turning to face the three other men.

     "Okay boy, we'll let you go this time.  Go home to your momma."

     "My mother's dead," the fighter told them as they went for their guns.  None of the three got a shot off, before the fighter shot all three dead, then casually shot MacKinin, who was crawling for his gun.

     "Four at once.  Not bad."  The Marshall stood behind his desk, and doled out the reward money.  "They scared off two of my deputies.  No way I was going after them with just one deputy."

     "You need better deputies," the fighter brushed a strand of red hair out of her blue eyes, back under her hat.  "The James boys are a little out of my range.  Who's worth the most?"

     "Well, Monacon here." The Marshall pointed to the poster, "Is worth 50,000 pesos, since he escaped.  But he's got forty guns, give or take.  Nobody's crazy enough to go after him, except the Army.  They asked for some information about him.  He was last seen at White Rock."

     "Thanks," the girl walked out.

     A gray-haired, older man, in stylish clothing of the 1880's, walked into the hotel bar, unrolled the wanted poster in front of the bartender, "Where is he?"

     The bartender set an empty glass on the bar, "I haven't seen him."

     The old man put a silver dollar on the bar.  The bartender filled the glass with whiskey, with seven pours, glancing up at the ceiling, "Haven't seen him."  He made the silver dollar disappear as he wiped the bar.

     The old man nodded, walked up the stairs.  He heard the man's voice, stepped beside the door marked '7', reached over and knocked.  The fusillade cut through the door.  The old man shook his head, waited a moment, then opened the door.  The bar girl in the bed looked appraising, and frightened.      "Ma'am," the old man tipped his hat as he walked through, and onto the balcony.  The man, his quarry, had dropped to the ground, and was halfway to the livery stable.  The old man pulled his pistol, and attached the shoulder stock with practiced motions.  He'd done this many times before.  Firing carefully, he hit the man in the leg.

     "The reward is dead or alive!" the old man shouted, "It's your choice."

     The man drew his pistol, a short barreled Colt in a fast draw holster.  The man's first three shots fell short, not even hitting the balcony, he hobbled forward to close the range.  The old man cocked his pistol, sighted carefully, and drilled the man right between the eyes.

     "One thousand dollars," the sheriff told the old man, as both stood in his office, "Takes me almost a year to make it."

     "Why didn't you take care of him yourself?  Youngster like you."

     "Some of us aren't as skilled as others," the sheriff admitted.

     The man shrugged, walked over to the wall of wanted posters, "What do you know about MacKinin?"

     "Somebody got him last night, in El Paso."

     "Interesting, wonder how that happened."  The old man stared at the Monacon poster, and the 50,000 peso reward.

     Inside the richly appointed railcar, the crown prince enjoyed the sport of his bodyguard sparring with the Shinobi master.  His bodyguard was the finest fighter in all Nihon, but the ninja had a few tricks herself.  The squeal of brakes, and frantic train whistle, alerted them all something was wrong.  In this barbarian country, everything seemed to be an emergency.  As the train shuddered towards a stop, none of them lost their footing.  To fall to such a trivial cause, would disgrace whoever they had trained with.

     All heard the shouting from the blue soldiers, in their outlandish tongue.  The sound of gunfire was unexpected. There were bandits in this country after all, the prince took cover, before his bodyguard had to disgrace himself by pushing him to the floor.

     The ninja had disappeared, while her task was to guard him, there was something else on the train that was more important even than him.

     The explosion shook the entire train, and tossed them around.  There were screams, and more gunfire, as the train rolled to a stop, but much less than the number of soldiers should have produced.  Some of the shouts were in the prince's own language.  The Imperial soldiers were only guarding two treasures, one for the Empire, one for him.

     His bodyguard prevented him from rushing forward until the train had completely stopped.  The bodyguard hastened to the window, and saw the horsemen ride off.  The pair hurried into the ravaged, armored baggage car.

     Many dead blue soldiers, and Imperial soldiers.  They both had served their Emperors to the death.  "They sacrificed themselves like samurai," temple priestess, his fiance, was pulled unharmed from behind a wall of soldiers, some in Imperial silks, some in the rough blue cloth of this nation.  She was disheveled, but more ashamed.  "My lord."  She knelt and bowed low, "They have the sword.  It . . . it was as if they knew."

     The prince nodded, the gold was trivial, the art treasures were to be mourned.  But the personal gift from the Mikado to the American President had to be recovered.

     His bodyguard extracted his shinobi rival from the debris.  She still lived.

     "The raiders," she whispered, all she could manage, "Will be difficult to track.  They fear no soldiers.  Another way must be found."

     "We will do our utmost to redeem our nation's honor, and fulfill our sacred mission," the prince pronounced, noting the approval of his two remaining servitors, and his fiance.

     The old man checked into the hotel at White Rock.  Monacon and his gang had ridden out to hit a train.  There was almost no talk in town about what exactly were on the trains scheduled through, that was almost unbelievable, rumors were abounding about everything else.  But Monacon hadn't come through here on his way back, neither had the U.S. Army, which rumors had in close pursuit.

     The old man had other, more accurate ways of finding out, and going after Monacon.  But since Monacon's escape from prison, the Mexican army was after him too.  A Mexican bandit hit an American train, and added the U.S. Army to the people after him.  The old man considered that the Apaches didn't like Monacon either, as he crossed their territory, they'd be after him as well.

     Three mutually hostile groups, all after my quarry's scalp, he thought as he cleaned his weapons in his third story hotel room, "Quite a mess," he commented to the darkness outside.

     A small man, the hotel launder, came in, head bowed, not looking at the old man.  The frightened man quietly packed up the freshly cleaned shirts in the old man's bag, and carried the bag outside.  The old man quickly followed, after he checked his coat and weapons.

     The small man walked out the front door of the hotel into the darkness, he paused, looked at someone standing in the street.  The old man made sure his appearance was presentable, and his weapons were easily at hand, before he stepped into view.

     The, boy?, it wasn't a man, gestured to the side.  "Take the bag to the train.  The gentleman is leaving."  The high voice put the stress on 'gentleman', not 'leaving'.

     "Set it down and go away," the old man stepped out of the light of the oil lamps, putting the light behind him, so he could see his target better, but he would only be a shadow.

     The laundry man let out an anguished cry, and ran back into the hotel.  The old man thought he heard the splash and clang of the frightened man leaping into his metal wash tubs.

     The old man stepped closer, wanting to get a good look at anyone with enough guts to try something like this.  The, it was a girl, very definitely, carefully stepped on his freshly shined boots, and ground her foot on them.  The old man looked down at the girl's filthy boots, and merely raised an eyebrow, it wasn't even worth trying.

     That infuriated the girl.  She punched him, harder than he expected, knocking him down and staggering him.

     He brushed himself off as he stood, reached for his hat.  Before he could pick it up, the girl had drawn her pistol and fired.  The hat scooted away from him.  He glanced up, walked to where the hat now was.  Another shot yanked the hat out of his hand.  He glanced at the girl, then continued quietly following his hat.

     On a cross street, the shinobi urged the prince and the rest of his entourage to halt.  The crown prince and the three others halted their horses, and looked at the tableau.

     "More of these filthy barbarians killing each other in the streets," the bodyguard pronounced.

     "Then look more closely," the shinobi warned, "The girl could not have missed at that range, so she hit what she was shooting at."

     They watched as three more shots scooted the hat out of the old man's hand, and down the street.  As the girl quickly ejected the spent cartridges, the old man carefully picked up his much abused hat, brushing it off while taking several long strides to lengthen the range.

     "Watch," the shinobi told them, "See this as a match, not a duel."

     The prince settled on his horse, watching as the girl reloaded, and the old man settled his hat carefully on his head, and drew his own pistol, taking aim with maximum care.  The old man paused and looked up, as the girl's two shots went wide.

     "Should we intervene?" the priestess asked.

     "No," the prince said, "We will watch what happens, this one had the other at her mercy, we will see what happens with the situation thus reversed."

     The old man set his feet firmly and took his stance, cocked the pistol and fired.  The girl stood stock still, bravely accepting the decision of fate.  The first shot blew her hat off her head, a quick follow-up tore through the thin ribbon restraining her long, red hair, which now blew free in the slight breeze.

     "Brave, and lovely," the bodyguard commented.  The prince smiled at the man who seemed to hold all `soft` women in contempt, perhaps why he found the shinobi so troubling.

     "Three," the priestess watched the hat dance in the air, held there by the precision gunfire.  "Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine?"  She glanced at the prince, didn't all these barbarians' guns hold only six shots?

     "Could you have matched that?" the prince asked his bodyguard, who squirmed slightly.

     "Yes, my lord," the man said proudly.  "On a sunny, windless day," he added quietly.

     The prince smiled, then bowed to the shinobi, "Most enlightening.  Very useful to know."

     The gunfighter let out a sigh at the flash of white teeth from her opponent.  The distance was unbelievable, nine shots instead of six.  She felt some relief, that the caliber and character of her rival matched her own.  She was certain she was faster, but she didn't concentrate on long-range marksmanship, the way this old man did.  She picked up the torn ribbon that had held her hair, ran her finger through her hair, she couldn't find any damage.

     The old man walked towards her, "Satisfied?" he asked as he walked by.

     "Yeah, I guess."  She retrieved her hat, and followed him.

     The liquor in the glass went down smoothly, not like the rotgut she was used to.  She looked around the fancy third floor room, complete with large feather bed, and a dresser with a mirror.  She had her feet up on the table.  "I have to admire the gentleman's taste."  She lifted his LeMat pistol with the attached stock.  "But this, gimmick - "

     "That gimmick, boy," he smirked at the joke, "Nearly put you in boot hill.  And you wouldn't be the first.  I've been in this business for nearly 40 years.  Can you make the same claim?"      "I've done all right," she replied defensively, she wasn't even 40 years old.

     The old man nodded.  "Still.  Monacon's bounty is a lot of money.  But, the rest of the gang is worth three times that.  That's a lot of money, even split two ways, I want in on that game too.  Besides, the U.S. Government just put a bounty of their own on him, and all the other gang members.  Nearly doubles what they're worth, payable in gold dollars.  Even the Army is after him now."

     "Which army?" the girl asked, considering the closeness of the border, and the free-for-all civil war currently raging in Northern Mexico.

     "Does it matter?  He's slipped away from the U.S. Army, the Mexican Federal Army, even the Apaches.  Man like that, takes a lot of catching.  Two hunters have a better chance working together.  Otherwise, it might be 48 to 1, not 47 to 2."

     "I wish I knew why all the activity about him," the gunfighter said.

     There was a knock on the door.  The girl had her feet back on the floor, the old man had his pistol in his hand, both in an instant.  Neither stood in clear view of the door or the room's window.

     "It's your room," she told him.

     He glanced at her, seemed to determine that she was watching the door through the mirror while covering the window.  "Come in," he said.

     The Crown Prince led his entourage of three into the room.  His bodyguard and the shinobi immediately took position in front, to guard him.  These two gunfighters had a reputation.  Killers who kept their word, and were relentless in their pursuit.  In Japan they would be the lowest sort of ronin, here they served a purpose.  He paused slightly, centering himself, "I believe you are men we can trust."

     "I think we've been insulted," the old man said to the younger girl, who stepped into view.

     The lopsided smile from the girl, the Crown Prince wondered if they were, or had become, lovers, she was attractive enough, and they were more similar than they were different.  Still, he had thought he'd phrased the comment to give no offense.  He turned to the priestess, whose command of the barbarian tongue was better than his.  She nodded, he'd said it correctly.

     "I meant no offense, you have a reputation of being rigorous hunters.  That is what we have desperate need for."  He avoided bowing, these people would see it as weakness, he needed their respect.

     "We?" the girl asked, "You and your friends?  The gentleman and I have a rather pressing engagement, a lucrative payday."

     The shinobi leaned back, "I believe that they may already be planning to attend to some of our mission."

     He nodded, wondered how she had gained the insight without knowing any of their language, "You are planning to go after the bandit Monacon and his followers.  I wish to offer an additional incentive.  He stole 70,000 American dollars, in gold, and several cultural treasures from the Empire of Japan.  They were to be gifts to your President and your Smithsonian.  Our nation's honor has been sullied, our outrage knows no bounds.  I am authorized to allow you to keep the gold, if the treasures are returned to us unharmed."

     "This is getting very interesting," the girl said to the old man, who nodded sagely.  She extracted a cigar, considered, then returned it to her pocket.

     "My Lord," his bodyguard spoke quietly in Japanese, and bowed, "Our honor, these people . . . "

     The Prince ignored him, "I can also offer our services as warriors, scouts, to authenticate the recovery.  Anything!"

     The girl looked at the shinobi and the priestess, "Keep your tongue in your mouth old man.  I don't think he meant that."

     The old man grinned at the girl.  The Prince couldn't understand the byplay.

     "My bodyguards."  The Prince introduced his bodyguard and the shinobi, who bowed.  "My fiance."  The priestess bowed.

The Pilots Emerge

     It was as if whatever had been holding us, let go.  The illusion of a normal appearance disappeared from me, my pale skin and blue hair returned.  As I straightened from my bow, I looked at my fellow pilots, shedding their roles and returning to their normal appearances, even as I did.  I looked at Shinji-kun, my `fiance`, the Crown Prince, remembering the careful `meetings`, observed and monitored by court favorites, and the source of gossip for weeks.  I blushed, although I doubt anyone noticed.

     "Okay, what was that about?!" the Second Children demanded, examined her mutilated hat.  "You shot at me!"

     "I hit what I aimed at," Roku-kun retorted, "I recall I didn't fire first."

     She fumed, then he dropped his bullet-torn hat in front of her.  She stared daggers at him.

     "So what do we do?" Nabiki-kun asked, then realized Roku-kun and the Second were staring at her in confusion.  She hadn't understood a word either of them had said as they argued, and they hadn't understood her when she spoke.  Nabiki-kun turned to Ikari-kun, who was blushing furiously, and studying the floor.  "Thinking about your fiance?" Nabiki-kun teased.

     He blushed more, and glanced at me.  I felt an odd warmth.  Then he looked at Roku-kun and the Second who were staring at us.  "I, uh, thought they were, umm, gettingtogetherafterthefight."

     "Getting together?" Nabiki-kun asked, then laughed.

     "Do you understand them?" Saotome asked.

     "You don't?" I asked.  Everyone seemed to be speaking the same language, only they didn't hear it, obviously.

     "Ranma, you can't understand them either?" Nabiki-kun asked.

     "You don't?" `Crown Prince` Shinji-kun asked, "Ayanami-san?"

     "I do," I said.

     Saotome shook his head.

     "I think we're stuck in character, speaking English or Japanese, as appropriate," Roku-kun told Shinji-kun, who translated for the others.

     "What's going on?" Saotome demanded, Shinji-kun translated.

     "Why are you all looking at me?" Roku-kun looked at the other pilots.

     Nabiki-kun smiled, she clearly recognized the harassed tone and expression.  She touched the hair at her temples, the hair that had been gray on him.  He shrugged in response.

     "We are in a dream," I said, first in `Japanese`, then in `English`.

     "We have to get out of here," Shinji-kun said in `Japanese`, then angrily repeated himself for Roku-kun and the Second Children.

     "Raccoon and I can do the `mission`, and you four can . . . do something to stay out of our way, I don't know," the Second said.

     That doesn't sit well with the others.

     "Only Ayanami-san and I speak both languages," Shinji-kun said.

     "Then we have to find some way to operate effectively," the Second complained, "Can't we get a break?  Dreams last night, a battle all day, then more stupid dreams."

     "I think I have a solution," Roku-kun said, "Saotome-san and Shinji-san coordinate operations with the government.  Rei-san and Nabiki-san come with Langley and I, to hit the enemy head on, or develop a better attack plan."

     Shinji-kun translated, and there was an immediate disagreement.  Roku-kun's idea was shouted down, he threw up his hands, poured himself a drink, obviously savoring the burning liquid sliding down his throat.

     As they rode along, Asuka looked at Wondergirl and Ice Princess in the unteasled shirts and Levis they'd bought the morning following the meeting.  She shook her head, and continued to make notes in her journal.
From the Journal of Asuka Soryu Langley

     Wondergirl and Ice Princess look completely out of place, Wondergirl is too pale, and Ice Princess's few callouses are from holding a weapon, not from working.  At least I'd been able to get them to stable their horses.  My and Raccoon's personas might have been able to afford such fine animals, but with the cover of them being Amerind servants, they'd never ride anything so exotic.

     I am glad Raccoon hadn't lost his eye for good horseflesh.  While our mounts looked like a mixed bag, mine and Raccoon's Arabian/Morgan mix, Wondergirl's Appaloosa, Tendo's and Saotome's mixed, Spineless's Palomino, they were all first-class horses.      The revolver managed to surprise the others, I reminded Raccoon about their skeet shooting on the carrier.  Wondergirl admitted she'd been trained with guns, so both of the `gunmen`, us, had insisted she too be armed.  A Schofield revolver, a cavalryman's weapon, it gave her a rate of fire exceeding my Colt, and Raccoon's LeMat, because of the break-open action.  The little practice we'd gotten in, showed Wondergirl was a passable shot, up to moderate ranges.  Raccoon's marksmanship was just frightening, especially with the stock attached.

     Although I'm the fastest draw, partially because of the Colt's shorter barrel and better balance, partially my own reflexes.  Horseface decided he wanted to be the horse's other end, he wanted to match my fast draw.  Boy was I glad I managed to find some blanks, after Horseface shot himself with the blanks three times, he wanted nothing more to do with guns.

     At least we didn't have to kill him to make him learn his lesson, this time.

     "Are these stupid dreams going to continue indefinitely?" Tendo asked as she wiped her forehead, from the dust and the heat, actually Wondergirl translated.

     Asuka thought how weird it was hearing Wondergirl actually complain about something, she'd translated not only the words, but Ice Princess's tone, like a recording.  "You don't like being attacked every night?" she asked.

     Otherwise, silence reigns, I don't know, it was clear to Asuka, that neither did anyone else.  She didn't want to think about last night's dream.  As confusing as it had been, being ripped out of it that way had been painful.  She glanced around, no one else seemed eager to comment on Ice Princess's assertion, even Raccoon and Horseface were quiet. What did they experience? Asuka wondered, A pleasant insanity that you had to master? She shuddered at the memory, it had gone from bad to worse, to tolerable and then even memorable to . . . gone.  Kaji's departure had been like a knife in her heart.  She remembered Kuno's fumbling attempts to console her, the only one who'd even recognized she was in pain.  She despised him when they first met.

     She glanced at Raccoon, Kuno wasn't the first: the honor-bound madman who never gave up, even when everyone else did. It was unfair, she considered, Still, the way the others were acting . . . they were just dreams after all.  Figments of our worries and the madness of a Great Old One.  It's not as though those people could possibly exist.

     She sighed, But it was kind of fun.  A no-holds-barred battle of wits against that pack of obsessive morons.  And I won. She looked at her fellow pilots, and wondered if it had been as bad for them. Spineless can get depressed about burning toast.  But Ice Princess, Raccoon and even Wondergirl were shaken. They're all made of sterner stuff than that.  Horseface . . . "Who knows if he feels anything," she whispered.

     "They're hardly attacks," Shinji translated her reply for Horseface and Tendo, "More like tests."

     Asuka noted Shinji's reaction to that, made a note to investigate later.

     "Yes," Raccoon added, "But who's doing the testing, and why?"

     "It shouldn't be one of our enemies," Ice Princess, through Wondergirl, tells us.

     "Not necessarily," Raccoon corrects, "They may assume this is an attack.  Put us in deadlier and deadlier confrontations, and they don't have to face us in our EVAs.  Maybe the next will be something from Japanese history."

     "This is Japanese history," Spineless tells us, "Right after the American Civil War, the Mikado was trying to make diplomatic relations with Washington."

     "What does that have to do with what we're talking about?" Asuka demands.

     "The environments have been somewhat familiar," Spineless replied quietly, "Like this one."

     "We have to do something to prevent this from continuing," Asuka told them, "Getting out of the brown air of Tokyo into the fresh air and the sunshine is one thing, but this is getting ridiculous.  I don't want to be something's play thing!"

     "Then what are we supposed to do?" Raccoon asked.

     Asuka paled at that, Yeah, you and Spineless aren't exactly in any condition to do anything, are you? Asuka thought, That's got to be tearing you up, isn't it, old friend?  Well, we'll protect you for once. She smiled at him, and treasured his confusion.

     The argument continues, but no conclusions can be determined.

Dramatis Personae

     "Are you sure of this information Raccoon?" Wondergirl translates for Ice Princess.

     Asuka listens idly.

     "Sure?  No.  It's as reliable as I can make it," Raccoon replies, he turns in his saddle, "They're in a hurry."

     Asuka watches Ranma and Nabiki turn as Shinji translates.  Raccoon pulls a telescope, while she removes her own small set of binoculars.

     "Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry.  Best soldiers in the American Army," Raccoon tells the rest of them.

     "They're coming straight at us," Ice Princess adds through Wondergirl, "Not towards us."

     Asuka turns to the others, "Ride!"  They spur their horses, hoping to tire out the cavalry's mounts before their own mounts tire, or to get across the border before the cavalry catches them.

     "What's he doing?" Asuka watches Horseface dismount.

     "Holy . . . Oh God!  I'll get him," Raccoon turns back to pick up Saotome, who seems amazed that his horse is outrunning him.

     "Keep riding!" she yells to the others.

     Asuka keeps glancing back, watching Raccoon catch up Horseface's mount, and ride back to the martial artist.  He quickly dismounts, gets Horseface by the belt and shirt collar, and throws him back aboard his horse.  Then Raccoon runs back and remounts at a gallop.

     Just like I taught him, Asuka thinks proudly, she watches them close in, Horseface looking put out about getting thrown around like a sack of meal, Someday, Saotome, nobody's going to be around to save you.  What are you going to do then? she wonders, Get you fool head bashed in or chopped off, that's what!

     Raccoon's attaching the stock to his pistol.

     Two other cavalry squadrons closing in, and a third group in the distance, she notes, This could be worse, but not easily.

     "Monacon," Raccoon tells her.

     "You realize that those two groups are closing in on the bandits," she yells back to him over the sound of hoofbeats.  And the cavalry must think we're stragglers, she thinks.  She estimates that Monacon's group will cross the border before the cavalry, Too bad.  And calculates that their group will cross the border ahead of their pursuers, We'll still have to get through the cavalry ahead.

     Asuka is undecided about fighting the Army soldiers, We can get the treasures from Monacon's group after they're dead, except, after scanning the group through her binoculars, I don't see anything like a sword.  She watches the cavalry shoot some of Monacon's men off their horses.  Less bounty, but less to go through to get the treasures. Then the cavalry opens fire on them, that decides for her and Raccoon.  She draws her rifle, and aims for the horses.  She sees other officers' horses going down as the bandits and her group head across the stream that marks the border.

     Without officers, those men aren't willing to take the risk of crossing the border themselves, Asuka watches Spineless pull one of the unhorsed bandits on behind him, as they ride out of the trap.

     Once it's clear the U.S. Army isn't pursuing, the combined group slows down.

     "They got six of them," Raccoon rides up to her, "Their horses followed us.  As long as they weren't carrying anything on their persons."

     "Take a look at our `battle-hardened veterans`," she replies.  Ice Princess and Horseface seem terrified at having been shot at.  Spineless is nervous, Wondergirl is unaffected.

     The man who Spineless picked up, dismounts, one of the bandits leads a horse to him.

     Monacon, Asuka thinks.  Looks at Raccoon, He's thinking the same thing: only Spineless . . .

     "Why are you here?" Monacon demands, looking over the group from atop his horse.

     "You got there ahead of us," Raccoon tells him, "There was an armored strongbox on that train, it's full of jewelry and special papers, for the U.S. Government.  You try to blow it up, or smash it open, you'll destroy half to all of it."

     Asuka and Shinji exchange glances, they're silent, I appreciate your chutzpah, Raccoon.  But you and I should be glad Ranma doesn't understand English.

     "I can open it without damaging the contents.  I also have contacts that will let me sell the papers back to the Japanese government."

     Asuka keeps her face expressionless, Okay Raccoon, I'm ready to jump out of my skin.  What's your next trick?

     "What will it cost?" Monacon wants to know.

     "Half of what's in the box, for my people, or equal shares of everything.  Your choice."

     Asuka watches Spineless and Wondergirl exchange glances, neither intends to translate any of this for Horseface or Ice Princess, They'd go into hysterics.  They aren't the only ones.

     Monacon agrees to equal shares, "But you get paid, when everybody gets paid.  Even if you have to wait an entire month."      "Agreed," Raccoon tells him, earning a glare from Asuka.

     "We should have discussed this beforehand," Asuka tells him.

     "When we have the luxury of preplanning," he replies, "Otherwise we'll have to improvise, both of us."

     Asuka frowns at that.

     Spineless translates, as Monacon rides among the pilots.  "Odd group," he stares at Horseface and Ice Princess.

     "They're Sioux, from Canada, chased there by the 'pony soldiers'," Asuka tells him, "They don't speak English, or Spanish."

     Monacon nods, then stares at Spineless and Wondergirl, he fingers Spineless's shirt.  "And him?"

     Don't faint Spineless, she silently implores.

     "Cheyenne," Raccoon tells him, "They're no friends of the Apaches."

     Monacon chuckles at that, he turns his horse, "Keep up, we won't wait for you."

     The bandits start out.

     "What exactly are you doing?" Asuka demands from Raccoon, she sees Spineless has ridden close enough to hear the answer.

     "Monacon's partner isn't here: even money, he has the sword, that's our primary target.  You agree?" he waits for her and Spineless to nod, "None of the band have it."

     Asuka agrees, "I haven't seen it.  But next time tell me your plans, beforehand!  Even if I disagree, at least I'll know what you're doing."  Spineless drops back to tell the others.

     "What are you two whispering about?" one of the bandit `sergeants` demands.

     "Whether I can really open that strongbox," Raccoon tells him, "And whether we can trust you.  Or the Apaches trailing us."

     The man spins around, laughing when he doesn't see anything.

     Asuka knows Raccoon wasn't joking, they'd both spotted Ranma watching - something - they couldn't see anything.  But if Ranma sees something, it's there.

     Spineless told the others what had occurred.  A warning glare from Ice Princess kept Horseface from screaming.

     "We're making common cause with these . . . " Ranma finds he lacks the vocabulary to adequately describe them.  Nothing he could think of was bad enough to actually be an insult.  They were filthy, unkempt, undisciplined, stupid, smelly, evil barbarians, even by their own society's standards.

     "The sword," Rei reminds them.

     I think she's actually enjoying this, he watches her return to Shinji's side.  They separate.  Ranma glares at the two English-speakers, Raccoon thinks we all have to dance to his tune, he grimaces, At least that part of the dream is accurate. "So why don't you suggest something?"  He quietly chides himself, then glances around.  He still could occasionally spot a single man following them.  He couldn't make out any details.  If it was just one man against fifty of them, he had to be pretty sure of himself, or he had a lot behind him.  Or he's incredibly stupid, Ranma thinks.  He sees a different lone man riding towards them.

     Monacon raises a hand, calling a halt.

     Evidently this is where we're going to camp for the night, he watches the others start dismounting.

     Am I glad my`character` can ride a horse! Ranma thinks, I can't believe I could be so stiff and sore from a day of just sitting on a horse.  He is jealous, Raccoon and Asuka don't have any problems, They must know how to ride horses for real. None of the bandits seem to have any problems, while someone seems to be stabbing him in the thighs with every step.

     One of the bandits swaggers up to Nabiki and Rei, says something that makes the other bandits in the group laugh.  Ranma had heard laughs like that among the middle schoolers, when they were talking about girls, usually in a way the girls wouldn't like to be talked about.

     Shinji takes Rei's hand, he looks calmly at the man.

     Not daring them to start anything, he smiles, But claiming possession, then frowns when Nabiki takes Raccoon's hand, and glares at the others.

     Speaking of claiming possession!  Damned Raccoon! he thinks, Fine, see if I care!

     Monacon collects a few horses, his ally, and rides off.

     Probably to bury the treasures, like a pirate. Ranma is amazed that Nabiki starts helping Rei make dinner.

     Nabiki burned about the comments made about and to her.  The bandits had wanted to know 'how much' for her and Rei.  She'd quickly realized what they were saying before Rei translated, despite the language gap.  Ranma had been too far away, and was generally too inattentive, so she'd teamed up with Raccoon.  He'd flatly told them, 'The lady isn't interested,' again she was guessing.  Again the white knight, she thought, Sorry Ranma.

     Monacon had laughed that 'Some things aren't worth fighting about.'  Rei had translated that part for her.  As if I'm not worth anything, she thought.  Then Rei had started making dinner, urging her to assist.

     She started helping, with poor grace, glanced at the others.  None of the boys was moving to do anything, Ranma had glared and marched off to talk with Shinji.  She wasn't sure what to do next.  One of the men grabbed her, pulled her up against him, she couldn't understand what he was saying, she smelled the alcohol on his breath.  She readied herself to punch him out, when Raccoon punched him, pulling her to safety behind him, then the man came at him.

     As she moved around Raccoon to join the fight, Rei took her arm, "We need to keep a reserve hidden."  Nabiki considered hitting the man with a cast iron skillet, Good camouflage, she reluctantly agreed with Rei, watched Raccoon knock the burly bandit down again and again with fists and kicks.

     Forget this, she hefted the skillet, and froze.

     The man pulled a pistol, but Monacon had returned.  The bandit chief stepped down on the man's pistol arm until he cried out.  Then shouted at the man and Raccoon.

     Nabiki stepped out of the way, and watched Raccoon withdraw a few steps, to let the other bandit stand up. So I'm just a piece of meat to be fought over? she fumed, A pretty bed-warmer, a possession?

     Then she had to admit that was how she'd been treating Ranma, like all his other 'fiances': he was a possession, something to be won, not someone to be wooed. So why did you agree to make Ranma jealous?  Better question, why didn't you define the terms better? she fought down her fury, at herself, her family and Raccoon.

     Monacon pulled a pocket watch, as the other man stood and steadied himself.  That drunk doesn't have a chance, she thought, It was going to be a murder, with just a semblance of a fair fight.

     Monacon gave a command, then flipped the watch open.  It started playing a tune.

     Nabiki was shocked by Raccoon, What's wrong with him?  Ranma wouldn't look that thunderstruck if he found out he was pregnant! She watched Raccoon as the tune played, Good Grief!  I don't think even getting shot will wake him up!

     Then the tune wound down, and Raccoon drew and killed the man with one shot.

     Nabiki felt sick, Another killing, how many more.  How many before I . . . have to kill a human.

     Rather than being angry, Monacon called off the bandits, "The man was stupid, it just means more money for the rest of us."  Rei quietly translated for her.

     The gang accepted this, Nabiki watched Ranma march over to Raccoon, with Shinji in tow.  She was afraid that Ranma was going to start a fight. Was Raccoon still in a killing mood? she debated whether her presence would inflame or defuse things.  She let out her breath when he instead demanded, "What Martial Arts did you just use?"

     At least he's consistent, she thought, felt relieved at the return to normalcy, as crazy as it was.  Until she saw the bandits dragging their dead comrade away. I'll never get used to that, she admitted to herself, Even in dreams.

     Ranma got an answer he didn't understand: "Savate and Pankration," Rei translated Raccoon's response, "Both are older than many martial arts, Pankration is 2700+ years old, it's from Greece."

     Nabiki was glad the demonstration convinced the bandits to leave her and Rei alone.  Although she noted how many eyes followed her as she laid out her bedroll near Raccoon's, and Ranma's weren't the most hostile or interested she saw.

Not the Cavalry

     Shinji awoke suddenly, in the early morning twilight.  He hears the jingle of spurs and commands in a language he doesn't understand.  Armed men in dirty clothes surround their camp, as motley a group as Monacon's followers.  Only the blue sashes around their waists mark them as a unified faction, their weapons as mixed as their clothing.  Monacon's bandits are frightened of these other bandits, despite outnumbering the newcomers close to two to one.  None of Monacon's bandits seems eager to move.  Shinji realizes they're being reasonable, no one wants to get shot.

     He looks around, wishing he understood Spanish, he can recognize that is the language of these new bandits, then he might understand what is happening, and what they're telling everyone. As if the guns don't make it all clear.      One of them, the one with the fanciest clothes, pulled Monacon from the group, another laughs and grabs Nabiki.

     Shinji sees Ranma ready to leap.  Shinji grabs his arm, "Getting killed won't help anyone," he tells him, "I don't see any of the others.  Just trust them."

     "I can't," Ranma looks heartsick, "I just can't."

     "You have to, you can't beat all of them," Shinji urges, Better to wait.  Let the others make their move. "I trust them." They might scare me to death, he silently admits.  "I trust them."

     Ranma subsides, the bandits, both groups, relax.

     The newcomers toss a rope over a tree limb, while another of their group makes a small pile of rocks.  One of the new bandits ties a piece of soaking wet rawhide around Monacon's throat, while the rope goes around his neck, and is pulled tight as Monacon balances on the rocks.  Nabiki has her hands tied to the pommel of a horse's saddle.  Another horse-riding bandit grabs the bridle.  The horses trot off, with Nabiki trying to keep up.

     "We have to do something," Ranma quietly demands.

     "What?" Shinji asks, he worries Ranma's impatience is going to ruin everything, and get them all killed for no good effect.

     The first bullet cut the rope holding Monacon, the choking man drops to his knees.  A second simultaneously kills the leader, a third splinters the pommel Nabiki is tied to.  Then the three snipers begin gunning down the new bandits.  Monacon's men draw their guns and begin a murderous close-in gunfight.  Shinji grabs a gun from a fallen bandit, and began firing randomly into the air while withdrawing from the enemy.

     Ranma couldn't bring himself to pick up a gun and kill, or shoot randomly like Shinji, but equally, he couldn't sit and do nothing.  We've got two people out there, he darted out into the mess, headed for Monacon, He might be the only one who knows where the sword is, and Nabiki's smart enough to get under cover.

     Ranma dragged Monacon down behind some rocks, after he saw Nabiki had protected herself the same way.  He cut the leather thong from Monacon's throat, earned a look of silent gratitude from the choking bandit leader.  He watched in horror as the new bandits were annihilated, even those who tried to surrender.

     As Asuka, Rei and Raccoon returned, he followed Monacon back to the group.  The carnage sickened him, especially that none of the three seemed the least affected by it, Maybe they can treat this as unreal, all an illusion, he realized, But I can't.

     Monacon turned to face them, demanded something.  Rei's cold reply seemed to settle the bandit.  He collected his lieutenant and rode off, with a small group of horses.  The others began breaking camp, got ready to ride.  Which Ranma was not looking forward to.

     "'Why were you out there?'  Monacon demanded," Shinji told him, "'You didn't set a guard,' Ayanami replied."  Shinji shook his head, it was clear he wasn't comfortable with the carnage either.  "Rei asked if they should search the bodies," Shinji added with disgust.  "I'm wondering if she's playing her role better, or if she naturally thinks that way."

     Ranma nodded, he'd been thinking the same thing, he glanced around, Asuka distributed the weapons and ammunition, while Jeff caught up the dead bandits' horses.  The trio loaded what supplies the dead bandits had, everyone just leaves the bodies.

     "How can you do that, Ayanami-san?" Shinji asked in Japanese.

     "We need the supplies," Rei replied in Japanese.  The group rode for a few miles, and stopped for breakfast.  Ranma wasn't even slightly hungry.

     "When are we going after the treasures?" Shinji wants to know as they unpack.

     "Later," Asuka tells him, "When we can win."

     Nabiki rode near Raccoon, pointing to things, saying the `Japanese` word and listening to Raccoon's equivalent `English`, trying to learn as much English as possible.  Am I doing this to make Ranma jealous, to make it up to Raccoon, . . . which may be mutually exclusive goals, or what?  Is that why this is happening?  Something is trying to educate us towards each other?  She didn't know, and the idea of one of their enemies doing that, terrified her.  It made no sense, unless it intended to . . . she couldn't easily think of a way it could be turned against them.  The only way she could turn it against the pilots was so convoluted even Kuno, or Misato, wouldn't consider it a viable plan.  Evidently, all of them had dreams Sunday night that gave them a feeling of doom, Asuka said they were tests.  Boy!  Did I ever flunk mine!  Am I passing this one?  Is that what this is, test us and destroy the ones who don't make the grade, and what of those who pass?  Or is it the other way around?  Destroy those who 'pass'? she shuddered, she wanted to ask Shinji or Raccoon about what had happened to them in the Waking World, but Shinji wouldn't talk about it, and Rei seemed unwilling to hear the question, let alone translate it.

     She glanced back at Ranma, who had been glaring at them as they rode along, but he'd also been listening to the questions and answers, to learn `English`.

     She was also worried that Raccoon had been looking around, when Ranma started staring at something.  From the look of frustration on the Sixth's face, she doubted Raccoon was seeing what Ranma was seeing, and with Ranma's irritation, it was debatable that Raccoon would question the martial artist about what he saw.

     So she asked, "Ranma what do you see?"

     "Someone following us," Ranma told her, "Are you sure you can spare the time to talk with me?  Your English lessons seem very important," he said innocently.

     "We have to be able to communicate," she countered, "You should be concerned that all our talk has to go through Rei or Shinji.  Even the most simple," the defense sounded weak, she beat down an impulse to tease him about his jealousy.

     Instead, she took a different tack, "You might want to watch your back, you're a pretty boy, and I don't think Monacon is choosy about his partners."

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

     Nabiki sighed, "He might prefer you wet, but dry wouldn't stop him from raping you."

     Ranma blanched at that.

     "That's why, and for no other reason.  I'd rather not get assaulted, because I'm not `attached` to one of the fighters, that's all it is," she paused, "That's all it is.  It doesn't mean anything else."  She watched Ranma's mount drop back.  I'm not winning here, she thought.  The idea of making Ranma jealous was becoming a less successful tactic as time went by. So what else am I supposed to do?

     Rei noted the reactions of the town's populace as the bandits rode in, a look of fear and a closed but not slammed door, as soon as the children were removed from the street.  The gray wood doors in the otherwise featureless white plaster walls, here and there, the plaster had come away, exposing the brick underneath.  No one had made an effort to repair those blemishes, or add any color to the place, even as graffiti.  She also noticed no people older than about 10 or 12, girls or boys, unless they were older than 60.  She wondered if that was a peculiarity of the place, or if Monacon's band had depopulated the town.

     The strongbox was brought out, and carried into the cantina, a table was violently cleared, despite the protests of the owner.  Monacon stared at Roku-kun, who brought in a toolkit.

     "Open it!" Monacon demanded.

     Roku-kun carefully unpacked a drill, wedges, a hammer, and several vials of chemicals.  Rei pushed her way to the front, to carefully take in his technique.  She ignored the pinches and slaps she received, she could deal with that later.

     The drill gingerly attacked the area around the rivets holding the hinges.  A small amount of whitish powder was added, a few drops of a different liquid.  The affected areas smoked slightly.

     Then the lock had the same treatment.  The bandits waited as Roku-kun positioned the thin wedges between the lid and the body of the strongbox.  He drove them in, with gentle strokes of the hammer.  The snap of the metal allowed access.

     Someone grabbed for the jewelry, Monacon grabbed the man's wrist.  "Wait!  We wait until things cool off.  Put the lid back on," Monacon turned to the Second Children and Roku-kun, "Keep the others here.  The division will take place later, when we can actually spend the loot.  Then you can sell the paper and get your cut."

     The Second and Roku-kun nodded.  Monacon and his lieutenant walked off with the strongbox, and the small chest containing the gold the `prince` offered to Roku-kun and the Second.  The sword was not in evidence.  Rei wondered about that, she also looked at the bootprints the pair left as they carried the load out of the cantina.  No one challenged Roku-kun or the Second Children, to follow Monacon.

     The groups separated when Monacon and his lieutenant returned.

     As she left to find Shinji-kun, Nabiki-kun caught up with them, "Do you two want to learn some more of the basics of martial arts?  We have a month to wait," Nabiki-kun said.

     Rei thought she sounded out of sorts, wondered what had disturbed her: Did Nabiki-kun need company, need to do something?  She and Shinji-kun exchanged glances, then both nodded.

     She wondered what they should do: wait, search, kill all the bandits and search the place completely?  What?  She wasn't used to operating independently, she followed orders to the best of her ability. Who here gives the orders? she wondered, I am the FIRST Children, but I am clearly unsuitable to command.

Searching in Town

From the Journal of Ayanami Rei

     The lessons continue what Nabiki had taught us before we arrived at the Coral Sea.  I also note that she tries to get Roku-kun interested in the lessons.  He used a word he'd learned from her Japanese: iie [No].

     The next day, bored by the inactivity, Ranma offers Roku-kun and the Second Children lessons.  They tell him in English to 'Go pound sand.'  He angrily stomped off.  I do not believe that is what they meant.

     Several of the bandits wanted to see some trick shooting by the pair of gunmen, the Second urged me to keep my capability hidden, ironically similar to my warning to Nabiki-kun.  Roku-kun's accuracy, 'Is just frightening,' Monacon comments.  The Second Children's quick draw is faster than Roku-kun's, or any of the bandits.  The Second Children brags that no one can outdraw her.

     I have been using the time they had the bandit group distracted, to mark off the distance Monacon and his lieutenant could have walked during the time they were gone.  This will limit the area the treasures could be hidden in.  I have coordinated with Roku-kun and the Second Children about searching these areas.

     Now I know who is in charge, they command jointly.  I wonder how they developed their close rapport, as close as the Meliorist and the Scholarly Dragon.  It is an interesting parallel.

     Nabiki rushed through the dusty streets to keep up with him.  Ranma was frustrated, "I've had enough!  If she's so good, let her prove it!" Ranma shouted.

     "Ranma, don't!" Nabiki urged him, "Don't do this!"

     Ranma shook her off, and pointed at Shinji, then Asuka.  Shinji translated the challenge to the redhead.  She smiled at him, and tipped her hat.

     Ranma watched in disgust as the bandits let out a shout, most were already drunk before noon.  Ranma listen as Rei announced something loudly in English, she was clearly unused to shouting, and marched off.  Probably denouncing the whole affair, Ranma thought, What does she know about honor anyway?

     Ranma followed as Asuka led the entire hollering mass out into the field where she and Raccoon had their trick shooting exhibition the day before.  He loosened the throwing knives that were part of his `costume`.

     Ranma couldn't understand what Raccoon was doing, walking out between him and Asuka.  Ranma ignored the murmurs of the bandits, he also ignored Nabiki's glare at him, he looked away, not wanting to be distracted.  He also wanted to know what the heck - Oh, the target.

     Raccoon faced him, held a bottle over his head, drew his own pistol.  Ranma waited for the signal, Raccoon fired into the ground.

     Ranma's throw was fast, nearly as fast as his own body, I'll have to learn this.

     The bottle exploded, showering Raccoon with glass, he seemed a bit shocked.

     Almost as shocked as I am that he'd risk it, he waited for the congratulations for beating Asuka.  "Well?" he shouted, and waited on Shinji for a translation. Maybe Nabiki has a point about the languages.

     He was disgusted with the bandit's disappointment, they'd clearly expected blood.

     "The knife was in the air, thrown with all his skill before the bullet hit."  Shinji paused, waited for the rest of Raccoon's statement, "At that point, you both died, at least."  Shinji struggled to the end of the translation.  For the frown on Asuka's face, Ranma hardly needed a translation, neither one of them was satisfied by that outcome, a draw.

     Shinji translated the rest of what Raccoon said as Asuka marched away.  "Who won would depend on range, longer range favors Asuka, shorter range favors Ranma."

     "Fine," Ranma told the other pilots, "You tell Raccoon that I want to see if he's as good as he thinks he is."

     Shinji opened his mouth to protest, shook his head and shrugged.  The bandits let out a whoop and a holler at the prospect of more free entertainment.  Ranma frowned at that, he was trying to see who the best was, And that pack of morons just wants blood.

     The first throws and shots were fairly routine, the difficulty ratcheted up quickly.  Ranma was straining to keep up.  He idly wondered why Raccoon seemed to be drawing this out, and where Rei had disappeared to.

     Night fell, Nabiki was laying out the bedrolls for herself and Raccoon, in their room.  The language gap prevented her from even joking about sharing blankets, and every time she got close, he shied away.  She didn't press, she didn't need to make him any angrier than he already was.  But she hated being 'tolerated'.  She wanted to scream 'What do you want from me?!' at him, but she wouldn't be able to make him understand, I'd just be a hysterical female.  That he was oh so polite, while in effect, snubbing her, made it worse.  Ranma was acting the same way, staying away from her, and she wasn't able to keep up with him.  She was seriously rethinking this entire arrangement.  With Raccoon about Ranma, with Belldandy about - everything. It isn't worth it.  I was always on the outside back `home`, because of how cold I was.  Here I'm too emotional, she sighed, Not emotional, angry.  Even our enemies are picking on me, reminding me I'm not as smart as I think I am.  Not as in control as I think I am, the one thing I've got total control over, I had to kill people to get.  Asuka should be having the same problems, but she doesn't.  I don't think Rei has problems, just orders and duties.  Am I just overthinking things, or just overreacting?

     Rei slipped in, made sure she wasn't being followed.  "I found the treasures," Rei told her, after telling Raccoon.  He immediately perked up, Nabiki resented that Rei turned to him first.

     Raccoon told Rei something, she translated for him, telling Nabiki, "Wake up Shinji and be ready to fight or run."

     Rei and Raccoon left without waiting for her reply, Just expecting me to comply, she yanked the door open to yell at them, a moment after they'd left, there was nothing out there.  How did they do that? she fumed.  She walked out to find Shinji, and Ranma.

     Rei led Roku-kun straight to the root cellar where the chest was.  "Only Monacon and his lieutenant have been here," she pointed out the boot prints.  Monacon's were distinctive, his lieutenant's were normal, but the spacing was correct for the strongbox, they were also much deeper going in than coming out.

     She was glad she didn't have to explain this to Roku-kun.  Like Asuka and Anna, he took her word on faith, not questioning.  It was an odd feeling, it felt good.

     Roku-kun's tools easily opened the locked door, they marched down the stair into the cool hole, she was disturbed that her night vision was lacking.  She was concerned that their bodies were `normal`, without any of their enhancements.

     At the bottom, in the darkness, she lit a lamp.  A large chest was concealed behind bags of meal.

     "It's too small for the sword," Roku-kun quickly picked the lock, handing her the strongbox of jewelry, and struggled under the weight of the gold, such a tiny package with such a weight.  Rei struggled to carry the gold to a set of saddlebags, and divided the small ingots into the saddlebags.  She scrambled out to hide the gold while Roku-kun reclosed the empty chest, and started repacking the treasures into a small satchel.  Without the sword, she knew they were still going to have to continue playing this game.

     She climbed a tree cautiously, to make no noise and draw no attention to the hiding place, she hung the saddlebags among a heavily leafed area, hidden from the ground.  She rejoined Roku-kun, who was relocking the door after them.  He handed her a small satchel.

     "That's the treasures, I left Monacon a special surprise, and erased all traces we where there," he told her.

     She didn't understand what he was implying, but she nodded.  She heard shouts in Spanish.

     "They found Saotome," Roku-kun told her, "Get Nabiki and Shinji out of here!" he urged, then headed towards where the shouting was taking place.  Rei slipped away.

     She headed towards Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun's `apartment`, she was glad she found Shinji-kun was there with Nabiki-kun.  "We must go," she urged, "Saotome has been captured.  I have the treasures."  She turned to leave, and was glad that both followed her into the night.  She heard the Second's shouting as they skirted around the horse corrals, the bandits had picketed it, something they hadn't bothered with before.  She knew they couldn't overcome so many, so she led Nabiki-kun and Shinji-kun out away from the town and headed out into the desert surrounding the town on foot.

     "What are we going to do?" Shinji-kun asked.

     "I do not know," Rei told him, "If we are captured, all is lost."

     Shinji-kun and Nabiki-kun nodded.

     For the sixty-third time since this dream had started, she wished she was just following orders, instead of operating without them.

Follow the Money

     Asuka felt the bruises and the rope biting into her wrists.  She, Raccoon and Ranma had just gotten the crap beaten out of them.  The bandits had been amusing themselves, instead of giving them a serious beating.

     "What's next?" she was pulled to a standing position, and led into the stables, there she was  tied to a post.  The bandits chuckled, as they tied up Ranma and Raccoon the same way in the stable.

     Once they were left alone, Raccoon spoke up, "Well, our `camp followers` would probably get raped, so I sent them out ahead.  Langley, you'll probably be treated as a warrior."

     "Thanks," she told him, with a mix of relief and sarcasm, it was something she hadn't considered, and wasn't happy he'd reminded her.

     "Don't relax, all that means is that you'll be treated as we are," Raccoon said, "As weird as Monacon and his followers are, that may not be absolute protection."

     Asuka swallowed, glared at him.  Then she realized that whatever happened to her, would happen to Raccoon and Horseface too.  That worried her.

     "Katana," Ranma said, "I, katana."

     She shook her head.  "Oh great," she sighed, "We got close to first place, but it had to be Mr. Subtlety who found it."

     "Could be worse," Raccoon replied.  They fell silent as they heard someone entering.

     "Gendo," Asuka said, looking at the Commander of NERV in period costume, Monacon was walking with him.

     "I should have realized these would be hunters," Gendo told them.  Ranma, Asuka and Raccoon exchanged looks, they all understood him.

     "When I recognized the Crown Prince and the priestess as I followed you, I knew you were mercenaries they'd hired.  Unfortunate you interfered.  Japan should be pure again," he said with a gleam in his eyes, "Closed off from the contamination of the outside world.  A place of beauty and honor.  But the Mikado will never agree.  So, he is shamed by the losses in a barbarian land, he will be removed.  Then we will return to the old ways.  The Day of Redemption and Return is approaching."

     Asuka watched Ranma fume as he absorbed the message that was a perversion of his own beliefs, and the trio considered the implications.  They waited in silence as Gendo and Monacon studied them, then the pair left.

     "What now?" Asuka said, she realized the `mission` had been betrayed from the start, Another lesson?  Like last night?  What is this, remedial treachery class? "Where have I heard 'The Day of Redemption and Return' before?" she asked, "And why did he mention it?"

     "They haven't killed us, so we're still alive," Raccoon said, "I haven't heard it before.  But I read it somewhere, the details are sketchy, but it is not good news.  The Dragon said 'The stars weren't right,' I would think that precludes the Day of Return."  Some moments later, he shed his ropes, and started cutting her loose with a sharpened coin.  The pair untied Ranma.  They slipped out of the stable.

     "Rei, Nabiki, Shinji," Raccoon told Ranma, "Katana doko." [Where sword.]

     Ranma grimaced and headed out.      "Weapons?" Asuka asked.

     "Weapons," Raccoon agreed.  The pair slipped into the darkness

     It worried her that Raccoon hadn't been acting normally, he hadn't been treating this as a game, as she had, but as a purely military exercise.  But he'd completely missed Gendo's inclusion.  She treated it was a puzzle to be solved, even last night's dream was a puzzle.  You accepted the insanity, and lived the best life you could within it.  He seemed to be taking things far too seriously. What did you dream Raccoon.  I expect that kind of behavior from Wondergirl and Horseface, she thought, The former didn't know any different, and the latter was a hardheaded idiot.  But, you, old friend, you always defined flexible thinking.  She spotted a group of bandits assembling outside the stable behind them.  She pointed to them, drawing Raccoon's attention, he nodded.

     We're walking into a huge ambush, she realized, The best way to deal with an ambush is overwhelming firepower, the second it to ambush the ambushers.

     Shinji ducked back into the shadows, hiding from a group of Amerinds, Apaches, he guessed.  He glanced back, Rei and Nabiki had also hidden themselves, it was the fourth or fifth such group.  Just three to five men, but it was adding up to a very large number.  Most were armed only with bows or spears, Shinji only saw one that had a gun.  From that man's more elaborate clothing, Shinji guessed he was some kind of leader.  If he could have spoken their language, he might have considered talking to them.  Finding out if they were here for a fight, or for the reward.

     Rei crept up behind him, "We must continue to avoid them."

     He nodded, and waited for Nabiki to rejoin them.  Then the group of Apaches reversed their course when Nabiki broke cover.  They came straight at the pilots.  Shinji stood and got ready to fight. Three against three, he thought, he hoped Nabiki and Rei were as good fighters as they thought.

     The fight was sharp, and short, Nabiki had taken out all three before they had a chance to close with him and Rei.  Nabiki took the bow and the quiver of arrows from one of the fallen braves.  Shinji and Rei exchanged glances, silently asking 'What got into her?'

     "There they are," Asuka pointed to their guns, placed in the lap of a guard with a knife in his belly, "Could they make their trap any more obvious?"

     They scanned the plaza, there was forty feet of empty space surrounding the corpse, eighty feet to cross to get the guns, and get back under cover.  She watched Jeff assemble the derringer from the parts he'd secreted in his clothes, but that was only two shots.

     "I think if we . . . " he started.

     She wasn't listening, she started a cartwheel, converted into a low roll, long enough to get the two pistols, then to a series of front flips to continue forward to cover across the plaza.  She heard the fire aimed at her, and Raccoon's two covering shots.  When she was back under cover, she flashed him a smile, holding up the two guns.

     He was emptying the derringer, he held up the two spent cartridges.  She checked the pistols, both had been emptied. Damn! She'd just captured two rather inferior clubs, the knife would have been a better weapon.

     She shook her head, and moved off into the shadows.  She was beginning to realize their opponent was smarter than she had been giving him, her or it, credit for.  They'd have to take out the ambushers to get ammunition, I should have hidden some, somewhere.  I'm getting as complacent as Misato.

     Rei was on point.  Shinji was close behind her, Nabiki brought up the rear.  They'd encountered a group of eight braves.  Nabiki had a better bow, and three quivers of arrows from that.  Shinji had a heavy army rifle and eight bullets.  Rei had a spear and her revolver.  And the next group they came across gave them a wide berth, which was the most welcome part.

     The bandits had arranged themselves around the town, but were facing the wrong way when the pilots, or the Apaches, came up on them.  They heard war cries and gunfire, indicating more fighting going on, but they hadn't seen the outcome of these battles.  Nabiki had just taken out one of these guards, who had been shooting at something in the town.  Nabiki was so angry, Shinji hoped the man was just unconscious, then they saw Saotome breaking cover.

     "I found the sword," he told them, "I found the sword," he added proudly.

     "Then why did you reveal yourself, and alert the guards?" Rei asked, deflating Ranma's ego.

     Rei-san really doesn't like Saotome, Shinji thought, I don't think she hates him, but they are contentious.

     "Where is it?" Nabiki demanded, "Let's hope they didn't move it."

     Shinji watched Ranma wince from that.  Frankly, he wanted out of this scenario, I think the others are getting tired of this as well, he thought.


     Asuka moved quietly through the town.  Since they both had plenty of ammunition now, the ambushers all had quite a lot, they'd separated to get as many of the bandits as possible.  She spotted Spineless and company, slipping through town, she picked off two of the bandits who were lining up on them.  Then the other pilots slipped out of sight.  She'd have to move out into the open to cover them directly, and she suspected that she and Raccoon were the bandits' principal targets.  The two killers in their hideout.

     Raccoon's behavior was really starting to worry her, he'd asked her to leave Monacon to him, if possible, not if practical, not if it was easy, if possible.  She was getting worried, Wondergirl she could understand playing her part to the hilt, she always went overboard 'being a good soldier', but she thought she knew Raccoon better, he didn't do things like that.  He was the one always cautioning her to stay calm and collected, 'Keep your mind on the mission.'  There were times she wanted to scream at him for that.  She wondered if it was a side-effect of being unconscious, poisoned by whatever the stuff the L.C.L. had turned into.

     She put the memory of that stuff out of her mind.  She had to stay focused to stay alive, to keep all of them alive. If possible.

     A group of the bandits had cat and moused Jeff into emptying his pistol's cylinder, and the two survivors weren't likely to give him time to reload.  But, the LeMat has another name, he smiled as he set his trap.

     The two burst into the room where he waited.  The shotgun blast killed both of them, Jeff carefully unscrewed the barrel extension off the central barrel that gave the LeMat its other name: 'Grapeshot revolver', replacing it in the detachable stock.  Then he laboriously reloaded the nine pistol rounds, and the central shotgun barrel.  He was confused that all the bullets from everyone's guns fit everyone elses.  It wasn't reality, but it was a tiny mistake that made things a lot easier.  He set off to find the others.

     Asuka caught up with the other pilots again, she noted when a bandit had been drawing a bead on her, he fell to Raccoon's marksmanship. Overwatch, she smiled, He isn't completely gone.

     Then the others came under fire, she couldn't see where the fire was coming from.  She moved to where she could better support them.  She saw Raccoon point at a building, while the others hid behind a wagon.  He circled around to attack the building from behind.  Wondergirl saw Raccoon too, she pushed the wagon as a mobile barricade, to catch the gunmen between her group and Raccoon, while Asuka kept up a steady harassing fire.

     The gunshots after the wagon smashed into the building were all the higher, sharper sound of Raccoon's LeMat, rather than the sounds like her Colt.  Spineless and company scrambled out in one direction, Raccoon moved off to be in a position to support them.

     Time to move, she'd been keeping track of her kills, she figured Raccoon was doing as well as she was, that meant nearly half the band were gone now. A lot of money, she joked as she moved off.

     Shinji followed Ranma as he led them to an otherwise nondescript building.

     Shinji shot the lock off, and regretted it immediately. I don't care if this is a dream, my shoulder hurts. He led the way down, reloading the single-shot rifle as he walked down the stairs into the cellar dug into the hard ground.  Ranma, Nabiki and Rei followed him.  They got immediate proof the sword was still here, when Gendo nearly took his head off with it.  Shinji barely got the rifle up to catch the blow, the rifle discharged uselessly.

     "Father?!" Shinji could hardly believe it.  Again he barely got the rifle barrel in the way of the sword.  He couldn't retreat, Ranma had crowded in behind him, trying to take over the fight.  Except on the narrow stairway, Shinji couldn't get out of the way, not without losing his head, literally.

     "Give me some room!" Shinji insisted, as he squared off against his father.

     Nabiki thrust Rei's spear over his head, and only managed to get it chopped in half.  Shinji was distracted by the falling shaft, and that nearly killed him.

     If Saotome wants this fight so much, Shinji bumped into him again, He should let me run away, then I could let him try his luck against father. He heard the trapdoor into the cellar open, he wondered who was running away, and why.  He wished he could run away too, he doubted Saotome would defeat his father, with only his bare hands, before he was badly wounded.  He was doing better with the rifle than Saotome would do empty-handed.

     Outside the cellar, Nabiki noted Rei was forcing her way into the building, Probably to get at `Gendo` through the floor. Nabiki wanted to find one of their two gunfighters.  She doubted any of the others could `kill` Gendo, Rei could never bring herself to do it, the rest of us, she admitted to herself, Could never kill anyone.

     The sounds of gunfire had slackened, so she hoped that meant they were - done.  That bothered her even more, she knew these men were criminals, even by the lax standards of the time. But gunning them down for money doesn't feel right.  There are some things no amount of money could make me do, she almost laughed at that thought, Some people might not believe that.

     She heard the difference between Raccoon's and Asuka's pistols, and the bandits' weapons.  Then she heard Raccoon calling out, it was easier to track his voice, Boy does he sound angry! she wondered how Asuka had screwed up to make him yell like that.  She headed in that direction.  The gleam of gold caught her eye, a pocket watch, she thought it was Monacon's, it looked just like it.  She heard one more shot, a bandit's, then silence.  She opened the watch, it played the same tune, then she looked at the picture carefully pressed into the cover.

     "Oh SHIT!" she broke into a run.  "He wouldn't do that!?  Would he?"  She spotted a dead bandit.  She relieved the corpse of the pistol and gunbelt he wore over one shoulder.  She heard Monacon's voice now.  She didn't recognize the words, but the phrasing she remembered from the duel between Raccoon and the gunman who'd assaulted her, then she ran to where she thought Raccoon and Monacon were.

     Rei pulled the last of the floor boards away, and dropped behind `Gendo`.  She realized she couldn't kill him, he was too much like the Commander.  But they only needed the sword, she picked up a handful of dried beans and threw them, a handful of corn cobs followed, If I can distract him enough, Saotome, Shinji-kun and I can disarm him without harming him.  She hoped that would work.  Another handful of beans, those seemed to work best, complicating his footing even if she missed her target.  She increased to a steady barrage, scattering the entire bag on the floor when it was light enough.

     "I'll kill you for your interference!"  `Gendo` screamed as he awkwardly charged her.

     She was frozen for a moment, This thing couldn't possibly be the Commander!

     She saw Shinji-kun take advantage of the distraction, to bring his rifle barrel down on the imitation Commander's head.  Rei grabbed the sword, as the thing she had hoped would be the Commander, fell.  She still refrained from killing him, it was unnecessary to win.  She took the sword and ran for the stairs, the silence outside had worried her.  She hadn't expected the Second Children and Roku-kun to finish so quickly, or to be silent about their success.

     When she approached a large open plaza, and things became clear.  Nabiki-kun had her bow drawn and pointed at Monacon, she had a pistol belt slung over her shoulder like a handbag.  Rei heard her call Roku-kun 'A careless old man,' and was walking between Roku-kun and Monacon, who had kept his hand away from his pistol.  Rei glanced around, saw Roku-kun's pistol lying in the dirt about a dozen feet from him.  She didn't understand why Nabiki-kun didn't shoot the man herself.  Roku-kun was reaching around Nabiki-kun, unbuckling the pistol belt.  He buckled it around his waist as she stepped away.  Nabiki-kun still kept her bow aimed at Monacon while she walked back to where Rei stood.  Rei heard Shinji-kun and Saotome arriving.  They stopped at the edge of the plaza, watching one or the other of the combatants.  As Nabiki-kun sat down, Rei heard the tune.  She'd heard it before, when Roku-kun had killed the man who assaulted Nabiki-kun, but it wasn't coming from Monacon, but from the watch Nabiki-kun had.      Rei sat next to Nabiki-kun, they watched Monacon sweat, He has to know we won't interfere with the duel, Rei loosened her pistol unobtrusively, If the bandit kills Roku-kun, I will kill him the next moment. She didn't understand, but Roku-kun had trusted her, she would have to trust him, and the others.

     Roku-kun waited, both he and Monacon seemed to know exactly how long the song played.  Monacon's hand moved slowly up towards his pistol.

     The bandit's hand had close on his pistol as a shot rang out.  Their last foe flew back to the edge of the plaza.  Roku-kun recocked the pistol, keeping it pointed at his victim.

     When the man didn't move, Roku-kun walked over, he kept his pistol on him as he carefully removed the watch from the dead man's hand.  Rei walked towards him, noted that Nabiki-kun fell in beside her.  Nabiki-kun handed him the duplicate watch.  Rei saw the photograph inside: two boys and an older woman.

     "Family resemblance?" Nabiki-kun asked, Rei translated as Roku-kun took the proffered watch.

     "Naturally," he said quietly, staring out across the plaza, "Between a mother and her two sons," Roku-kun carefully replaced the watches in his vest pockets.

     "I thought pilots were only children," Shinji-kun said, then he remembered, "Your brother?  He died."

     "No pilot has siblings," he replied, "When they become a pilot.  If you have the sword, then it's over, where's Langley?"

     Rei watched the others look around, she spotted the figure recovering the gold-filled saddlebags from where she had hidden them.

     "I think we're all rich!" the Second had collected all the dead bandits in a wagon.

     Logical, Rei thought, They were worth money, and it was a way of ensuring she had them all.  She watched as the Second added Monacon to the pile, Roku-kun was checking his pistol.

     "With this hit on the cylinder, I wasn't sure it would still work."

     "Then how what - were you going to do?" Shinji-kun asked.

     "Knife and derringer, I figured I'd get him before he got me."

     "Shouldn't this be over?" Ranma asked.  The Second seemed to be recounting her collection.

     While Shinji translated, Rei saw the movement, turned and fired.

     The Second saw the armed man fall from his concealed position, "Thanks Wondergirl.  I was wondering why it didn't add up, bad math, very distressing," she checked again, "That's all of them."  She threw the last corpse in the wagon, then brought the gold back to Shinji, "Better you keep track of this, Spineless."  Shinji-kun staggered under the load.

     They rode back across the border, disinterring the other bodies killed by the other bandits, Roku-kun and the cavalry on their way.  The reward for all the bandits was considerable.  Although both Jeff and Asuka found the Cavalry Captain and U.S. Marshall's reaction to their proof amusing.  Once they were back at the train, they also earned the reward for the safe return.

     "What are we going to do now?" Ranma asked, "We did everything: We got the sword, killed the bad guys, and got back here, you two got paid.  There's nothing else."  Shinji automatically translated.

     They were all sitting in the Prince's railcar, waiting while the engine got up a full head of steam.

     "There is one thing we haven't done," Jeff stood up and walked out.  The others followed as he climbed down the stairs to the hardpan.

     "There's a question that we have not answered," he drew his pistol.

     "What's that?" Asuka asked.

     "What's the others' freedom worth?" he replied, flipped the pistol up and under his chin, and pulled the trigger.

     "NOOOOO!" Nabiki crashed onto the floor of the room.  She painfully glanced at Asuka, who was also lying on the medical room floor.

     "Ow!" Asuka said, then shouted as she realized she still had the Colt in her hand.  The two looked up from the floor at Rei, who was sitting up with the covers pulled over her, staring at them.

     "Roku-kun?" she asked, and the pair charged out of the room.  Rei pulled the covers aside, revealing the costume of the priestess she still wore.  It was the softest silk she'd ever felt and completely without the maddening seams.  It didn't chafe as ordinary clothes did.  She wondered if it was a bribe, to bring the others to the conclusion she, and obviously Roku-kun, had come to.

     She extracted the Schofield pistol she had been left.  She considered the contest, yesterday the opponent had weakened them as much as possible, tormented them all mercilessly, in ways they didn't even know they could be injured.  Then battled the wounded pilots in earnest, and lost.  As a result, their opponent had decided to withdraw.  Not victory or defeat, but non-participation.

     She also wondered at the tokens they had been granted for their victory, the weapons would only be useful against other humans.  Was that warning also part of their accolade?

     Rei sighed, laid back down, closed her eyes.  It was too difficult to think about.  She did wonder when Nabiki-kun would realize she was still carrying Roku-kun's pistol.