Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 12-13 ( Chapter 6 )

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

Chapter 12: Realignments
      Answers in the Darkness
      Hidden Snapshots
      Polish and Roughen
      Return and Recovery
      Reaction Under Pressure
      Defying the Enemy Doesn't Define the Hero
      Service to Others

Chapter 13 - The Rubicon's Dark Frontier
      Ranma's Travail
      Plans for the Future
     `Treacheries` of a Dragon
      Plunge Pool

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 12: Realignments


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)

It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.

James Thurber

Chapter 12

Realignments     Ritsuko got out of the way as the two pilots charged past her, since they were both armed, she followed them closely.  They charged into Jeff's room.  Both yelped moments after entering.

     "What's going on here?!  Where did you get those?!" Ritsuko demanded, she was terrified of the possibility of a shot in here, with the oxygen tent.  The oxygen-saturated bed clothes would go up like a torch.

     Nabiki looked at the odd pistol she had in her hand as if clearly seeing it for the first time, and carefully set it on the floor.

     Asuka ejected one shell from hers, and put the hammer down on the empty cylinder, then set the pistol on the ground, "Is he all right?" she demanded.

     Ritsuko decided to humor the girls and did a quick physical on her still-comatose patient.

     Nabiki looked over her fellow pilots as they sat together in a waiting room of the medical center.  After the abrupt end of the dream, no one wanted to go back to sleep.  They had surrendered the weapons they had found themselves with.  Nabiki and Ranma had done so gladly, Asuka and Rei had requested their return once found safe.  Ranma had a paired sword combination, in Shinji's hand they found the sword they had spent most of the adventure pursuing.  Raccoon had the twin pocket watches.

     Nabiki remembered how crazy Dr. Akagi had gone when she realized the weapons were 'live', and had materialized out of seemingly nothing.  She looked at Asuka, Ranma and Rei, all looking around as they waited the results of the tests.  Nabiki had thought they would all want to talk about the dream they had shared, but the way it wrapped up,made all of them unwilling to discuss it.

     "Well, there has been no change in either of them," Dr. Akagi entered, "Our tests on your `presents`, indicates they aren't dangerous . . . besides their obvious purpose.  Do you actually want me to believe those were some kind of payment for your performance in a dream?" she asked the maudlin group.

     "No, we always carry around archaic weapons when we go to bed," Asuka replied, "What other explanation is there?"

     Dr. Akagi was caught by her own rational nature, she didn't have an explanation.  "I think you all better get some rest."

     "'Sleep, perchance to dream,'" Rei quoted, "I think not, Doctor."

     "Here, here," Asuka added, "Two nights in a row.  I'm not going to sleep again for a week."

     Nabiki nodded, Well it's good to know someone else counts these as nightmares.

     "You said it," Ranma declared, "I don't mind winning, but the cost is too high."

     Nabiki was surprised to hear Ranma say that.  Yet,she still didn't want to be the first to talk about what happened.  She couldn't understand what he'd hoped to accomplish.

     The four pilots walked to school, Nabiki was glad Ranma was walking on the ground among the three girls, rather than his usual perch on the fence.

     "If I'd had my skills, I could have escaped, easily," Ranma assured them.

     "I thought martial artists were supposed to adapt to changing circumstances," Asuka commented.

     Ranma growled at that.

     "There are things you cannot adapt to," Rei said quietly, she hobbled along with them, her arm and leg still in their casts, and her head bandaged.

     "The voice of wisdom and experience," Asuka replied.

     Nabiki just wished she'd gotten more sleep, she felt like she'd run a marathon, or been run over by one.  The debriefing with Gendo earlier in the morning had been a real treat, like Misato and Akane making your favorite breakfast, and not telling you they made it until after the first bite.  "I just hope I don't fall asleep in class," she yawned.  Asuka and Ranma mirrored her, Rei merely stared.  Why not, she got some sleep, Nabiki grumbled inwardly.

     Dr. Akagi had all but ordered them to go to school.  'Showing the flag,' Nancy had added.

     That's all well and good, they don't feel this way, Nabiki stumbled, Ranma caught her before she pitched over.

     "You okay?" he asked.

     "No sleep," she yawned.

     "You should have gotten in some practice, it really wakes you up in the morning," Ranma teased.

     "If I could catch you, I'd hurt you," Nabiki replied without conviction, let him put her in a standing position.

     Ranma laughed.

     "So, Wondergirl," Asuka began, "Do you believe it wasn't exactly an Angel attack.  Just a 'Test of their abilities,' the way Commander Ikari said."

     "That is what the Commander said," Rei replied.

     "I just said that, Wondergirl, I asked what you think.  Or don't you have any thoughts unless the Commander puts them in there?"

     "Yes," Rei increased her pace slightly.

     "So are you going to tell us what they are?" Asuka rushed to keep up, "And if you just say 'No', I'll tell everybody you had a dream, where you and Spineless were engaged."

     Rei stopped, stared at the redhead.  Asuka stopped and backed up a step.

     "Don't kill her here," Nabiki told her, "Wait until we get to school, to serve as a lesson to others."

     Rei continued to stare at Asuka, "Learning is important."  Then she turned away and continued walking.

     "Asuka," Nabiki began, "You might want to lay off her for a while.  All of us are out of sorts this morning."

     "I'm not," Ranma assured them.

     "Then you forgot nobody has a thermos," Nabiki replied, "You get splashed, you stay as Ranko for a while."  She watched him react to the realization, and Asuka's smirk.  She didn't realize that either, now she's looking for cold water, Nabiki sighed, This is not going to be a good day.  She yawned again.

     And it keeps getting better, Nabiki saw Hiroko and Matsuda - somebody - from the `eyes and ears`, standing with Rei, the pair immediately started towards her when Rei pointed her out.

     "Boss, we - you look terrible," Hiroko said.

     "Just what I needed to hear first thing in the morning," Nabiki replied, "When you call me 'boss' that means either good news or bad news, which is it?"

     "Sempai," Matsuda bowed, "We have a report, of cult activity."

     Nabiki's mental cobwebs were blown away by a chill wind, "Have you told anyone else?"

     Matsuda shook her head.

     I should be able to remember her name! Nabiki raged inwardly as Matsuda gave a very thorough report, right down to a map of the area.

     "I thought you had orders not to take chances," Nabiki said sternly, wondering how she was going to get this information to the military.

     "They always leave after - " Matsuda gulped, "services.  It's hard to disguise them, whatever they're doing, sets off every dog and cat in the neighborhood.  That's why the police don't investigate, they think it's just a noise complaint."

     I'm not - STOP!  This IS your job, you took the contract, Nabiki steeled herself, "How sure are you of this data?"

     "I've known about it since before the first Angel showed up and fought with the EVA," Matsuda told her, "I don't wish to trouble you, but Ayanami-san said you were the one to talk to."

     "Yes," Nabiki considered, made a notation in her notebook and collected the notes and map, then nodded to Matsuda.  The girl had the good sense to leave.

     "Boss, Natsumi may seem to pull her nose out of a science book, only to come up for air," Hiroko told her, "But she's rock-solid.  If she says it's there, it's there, it may even really be a cult."

     Natsumi, Nabiki finally connected the face to the name, "That isn't what's worrying me.  Let's just say, procedures to get this information to the authorities were not discussed."

     "Why not just go out to the Marines posted at the back gate?" Hiroko asked, "If you're late, I can cover for you," Hiroko smiled, "Pilot business."

     "Yes, thank you," Nabiki was grateful, "Matsuda-san isn't the only one rock-solid around here."

     Hiroko blushed, "Well, considering we were in the shelters from the moment you all ran out of here, until 7:00 at night, I figured you were fighting the whole time."

     "No, just two fights, separated by something I can't talk about," Nabiki and the other pilots had been instructed not to mention 'the side effects of the battle,' Typical Gendo cold euphemism, we got cut down by a third, and it's a side-effect.

     Hiroko nodded and headed inside, no questions.  Nabiki proceeded to the Marines lounging around their jeep, she recognized the long aerial indicating they had a radio link.

     Asuka was also not looking forward to the day.  Seeing Hikari was all right, she collected the homework assignments.  There hadn't been any more class after they left.

     "So you won?" Hikari said, "Asuka, why did you let Ayanami get hurt, again?"

     Asuka kept a straight face, "Classified."  She was glad Hikari got it the first time.  Asuka glanced back at Wondergirl, staring out the window again.  Asuka wondered if the gaze was a straight line from Wondergirl to Spineless, Probably.

     She didn't want to think about Wondergirl, her motivation and dedication to the `cause`, if she'd been torn up that badly in combat, she would have been out of action.  Wondergirl seemed not only oblivious, but insisted on continuing the fight, and helping the others with the rescue, I don't think I could have done that.

     The `stuff` was also concerning her.  She looked closely at Ice Princess as she slipped in ahead of the teacher, and took her seat.  Neither she nor Ice Princess had a twinge from the stuff.  Were boys more vulnerable?  Or is it experience as a pilot? she turned her attention back to the arriving teacher.  She stood, bowed, and sat on command, then returned to pondering what had been happening here and in dreams,over the last few days.

     It's too easy to assume it's all from one source, she thought, Concord doesn't automatically mean conspiracy.

     Asuka was actually enjoying Literature class, the last of the day.  The teacher was lecturing on Goethe, her favorite author, she'd done a half dozen papers on his life and works through college.  While everyone else was doing Nietzsche, she smirked at that, and at having corrected the teacher at least twice in the first few minute, Politely of course, the old fool didn't expect to be told the exact source material where he got the bad information from.

     She had a project, the prog knives were good weapons, but a knife was a rotten weapon in an open field fight.  Since they only had Wondergirl to test here, and Krupp and Rhienmetall could never produce a proper rifle, we're stuck with second rate weapons.  I wish the Skoda works had gone to the west, they had something that might have worked, she considered the limits of weapons and material technology available.  The prog knife was about as large an object they could get to do what it did, We need something with more reach.  Like a saber-halberd.  She'd sketched the simplest answer, ancient humans had the same problem, they could only make knives.  So you put a knife on the end of a stick.

     "Miss Ranguri?  Are we bothering you?" the teacher snapped, the class chuckled.

     Asuka snapped to attention, standing next to her seat, "I was just waiting to explain that Bach's Jig Fugue received that nickname because the organist looks like they're dancing a jig while playing it, not because it was jig music."

     Laugher from the class, Asuka kept her face carefully neutral, if she didn't overplay it, he'd leave her to her project for the rest of the class.

     "Thank you, Miss Ranguri, please be seated," the teacher told her.

     Asuka returned to weapon's design.  The haft was the major problem, it had to be strong without being rigid, and it had to be light.  She frowned, Now I have to convince them to actually test and build this thing.  Instead of smile, pat me on the head and throw it away.  'You're just a child, how could you possibly understand anything,' because it's my neck out here.

Answers in the Darkness

     Ranko looked around the dojo in dreams, even the little cat was gone.  When she'd arrived and found the cage gone, she'd searched the entire structure.

     "A few weeks ago, I would have been petrified to even try that," Ranko said, then admitted, "If I found it, then, I would have been petrified."

     Satisfied she was alone, she returned to Ranma's form.  He needed to practice.  Two dreams in two nights, and the first thing their opponent did was make his martial arts unavailable.  "Cheating," he started a kata, then abandoned it, concentrating on creating a practice dummy, "That is really pathetic."      It looked like a kid's drawing of one, which had been run over by a truck.  He shook his head and returned to the kata, willing each strike to hit the target, instead of simply allowing it to happen.  After several hours he stopped.  He could practice what little he knew, over and over, but he wasn't learning anything new here.

     He briefly considered leaving the structure, to walk his own dreamscape, then abandoned the thought, he was terrified of the 'most gentle' of his fears.  The other things out there would tear him apart, "And I might not be able to fight back."

     He sat and meditated, there were other things that were bothering him: Asuka and Nabiki had been nice to each other.  Gone out of their way to do it.

     "Except when Asuka mentioned Nerima," Ranma considered, "Then Nabiki acted like she'd been stabbed.  Why is that?  It's just a place, like the Ginza or the Harbor.  As far as I know, none of us have ever been there."  He relaxed, meditated on that, trying to grasp the thousand idle thoughts as they raced through his mind, trying to assemble a coherent whole.

     Rei kicked her way through the knee-high snow, the train was practically buried in a drift of it.  It was still coming down in flurries, a flake here and there.  The low temperature in Shinji's dreamscape didn't bother her, but there was something else to the cold here.

     The villages were dark, cold.  There was no food to be had, none of the services or products she'd wondered at when she walked through them the first time, were available.

     It was as if it was not a physical cold, but an absence of what had `operated` the place, as if the sun had gone out.  This concerned her, death should have caused this place to cease to exist, not linger on in this twilight state.

     Rei looked around once more, she'd walked along the entire train track, visited the three largest villages, and the five most important shrines.  She found nothing, none of the sense of unseen activity, no sense of hurried abandonment, as from a disaster.  These seemingly new and well-tended structures had the feeling of being forsaken long ago.  An odd paradox, Rei thought as she considered her other options, another paradox presented itself.  "I have other resources," she said considered possibilities, "One I fear, the other fears me."

     She began her long walk to the Dreamlands.

     The troops hadn't moved since the last time she had been here.  Rei walked straight up to the cavalry patrol.  The Red Dragons were still under orders to take her unharmed.  "I wish to see the Scholarly Dragon."  She shivered at the thought of encountering that monster again, she had never really known fear until she'd come face to face with that demon.  At the same time, she remembered the careful touch, the kind words, when it thought she was . . . "Langley," she said quietly, as she jogged alongside the cavalry guard, Why did the Dragon call her Langley, not the Meliorist or Asuka?  She considered that she would have to solve that mystery another day, she had her first mission, and she would complete it.

     They took her to Alwyk's tent, she noted the rug on the floor, the same one that had held her captive.  I must put him at ease, she stepping into the middle of the design, felt an odd tingle as she stepped through the unseen barrier.

     "That was hardly necessary," Alwyk told her, "We needed to maintain operational security.  Now they know we're here."

     "What was removed from the Forbidden Lands' temple, Nyarlathotep got it?  The Dragon led his rescue, in April 1945."  She awaited his answer, his shock was evident.

     "You were one of the SEELE troops," Alwyk realized, "It is none of your affair."

     "I wish to speak to the Scholarly Dragon," Rei replied, "Myself."  She is shaking at the thought the creature is somehow watching all this, waiting for the right moment to announce himself.

     "Maybe when he returns from Ulthar.  He had urgent business with - "

     "Without the artifact, he may never return," Rei interrupted him, she had an idea what SEELE had wanted so desperately, and what Nyarlathotep wanted them not to have, and to have himself.  Her new experiences with others, and her time as the Second's dreamself, allowed her to see things in a different way.

     She had never considered herself an `adventurer`, she went where the Commander told her to go, she delivered the messages he wanted delivered, and reported what she saw.  Anyone or anything who tried to stop her, was dealt with.  That she had walked the length and breadth of the Human Dreamlands, traveled to several other Dreamlands, even observed the battle to the death at El Nureenen's fortress complex, did not make her an adventurer, until she had seen the others, and realized that was exactly what they did.  Except I was following orders, she reminded herself.

     Now I understand what they wanted, and why, she realized, Power and control, the Commander might be able to control it, but not a committee who squabbles over everything.

     "I want to thank you for killing the Cthonians," she bowed, as she'd seen others do.  For a moment she didn't understand the old man's slack-jawed expression, I should not know him and his wife in their dragon-forms, she realized, but did not explain.

     He nodded, "The boy has developed a fondness for you," Alwyk told her then smiles, "So has the Dragon."

     Her confusion and terror are multiplying, she feels ready to spin out of control.  For the moment she is glad of the spells holding her within the boundaries of the rug.

     The bar was nondescript, the beer was cold and the bartender knew to keep his mouth shut.  Most of the customers came here to drink and get drunk, not to socialize.

     Misato Katsuragi sat in the corner booth, looked over the other patrons.  She idly wondered what their reaction would be if she announced who and what she was.  She was just drunk enough to think their reactions would be funny, and just sober enough to know it would be a very bad idea.  Everybody thinks me and Kaji are making out.  She downed the rest of the beer in front of her and signaled the bar for another.  That's a laugh, she glared at the last bit of amber liquid in the glass, as it defiantly remained there, despite her best efforts to put it where it would better serve, It was as bad as the kids.  The new beer was delivered, she consigned the last beer in the old glass to a cruel end in the bar's dishwater.

     "Why would he want me anyway?" she said quietly, the fact everyone assumed they had picked up where they'd left off in college, was painful.  All of Kaji's denials had the air that they were lies, to protect her reputation.  Can't have NERV's tactical commander be a loose woman sleeping with somebody, she thought angrily, The simple fact is, he's probably off chasing younger girls, the college and the streets are full of them.  She drained half the glass.

     Why do I care anyway?  "I'm successful, I'm powerful," she said, surveying all the people around her, she could order the military to make them do whatever she wanted, That was real power, wasn't it?  NERV officers were feared and respected.  Except by the pilots they commanded, she drown that thought with the rest of the beer, signaled for another.  Damn kids acted like this wasn't important, like it was all easy, or a game.  She couldn't instill in them the right sense of mission and the gravity of it.  Shinji and Rei acted like it wasn't important.  Asuka and Defisu acted like they knew what they were doing, and still treated it as a game.  Tendo acted so smart, but she still didn't know half as much as she thought she did, Misato chewed on that thought, Ranma's as bad as Kaji, neither took anything seriously, unless he decided it was important.  Then it was all-important.

     "Not so smart or clever," she grumbled, "Kaji was just as bad.  His special project, kissing up to Commander Ikari."  Like Ritsuko trying to be mommy-perfect.

     "So what was the alert last night all about?" she heard from the booth behind her, the voice was American.

     "Bunch of cultists, we dropped the world on them," another American voice, "Bunch of weeds."

     "Get the leaders?" the first voice asked.

     "Of course not, they know not to put their ass on the line," the second voice said, "That's why they're officers."  Laughter from both, Misato bristled at that, Saotome had accused her of the same thing.

     "Let the cannon fodder get killed, they stay nice and safe," the second voice continued.

     Misato lurched to her feet to confront them, the room lurched back at her.  Her angry retort died as she struggled just to remain upright.  She saw the rank insignia, Just a couple of sergeants, what do they know anyway.  She made it to the door under her own power, without bumping into too many other patrons.


     The four pilots were walking to school again, Ranma looked down on the three girls from his perch on the top of the fence.  He could imagine he was guarding them, but he knew that anything less than an Angel would have its hands full tangling with the three of them.  Considering the mood they're all in, even an Angel would leave them alone, he thought.  Despite Rei's injuries, she was keeping up with the others easily.

     That bothered Ranma, there was no reason she wasn't released from school.  Yet she stays with us, and immediately goes to watch over Shinji after school.  He could understand devotion, but not Rei's rigid single-mindedness.

     The chaos of the school yard was as expected.  Ranma hailed Seisuke and Kenta, he knew Nabiki would put her head together with Hiroko, and Asuka with Hikari, and Rei would just go inside, sit at her desk and stare out the window.

     The other students surrounded the four of them, before that could occur.

     "Was there a battle?"

     The students crowded in.

     "Where are the others?"

     Someone jostled Ranma.

     "Did you win?"

     Rei bumped into him, pushed by someone else.

     "What was it after?"

     Ranma heard Nabiki snarl at the rough handling.

     "Why do those things keep attacking Tokyo?"

     "Give'em some room!" Toji bulled his way through the crowd, shoved the students away, Seisuke and Kenta followed, kept the gap open.  Rei practically ran through the gap into the school.

     "You have classes!" Hikari announced, "Get to them!"

     When a few people looked to Nabiki for confirmation, Hiroko shouted, "You heard her, NOW MOVE!"

     The crowd dispersed, Hiroko, Hikari, Toji, Seisuke and Kenta were the only ones within 3 meters of the pilots. Kensuke and Hiroko's `bodyguard` were `orbiting` a short distance beyond that

     "Not quite the Marines," Hiroko said, "But close enough."

     "Thanks," Asuka told her and Hikari, "Yes, there was a battle."

     "Can't you tell us anything?" Kensuke asked.

     "We won, you're still here," Asuka replied, "Any other questions?"  They walked up the steps to their class.

     "Where's Shinji?" Toji asked.

     "And they call me tactless," Ranma said.  Earning a glare from Asuka, What's with her?

     "We can't say anything more than they got hurt," Nabiki said.

     "Worse than Ayanami?" Hikari doesn't believe it.

     "No," Asuka said, "But we can't talk about it."

     "What about the fight?" Kensuke demanded, "I heard you used a whole new piece of equipment.  Some new, super secret NERV weapon?"

     "Naw, Raccoon threw it together out of cement," Ranma told him.

     Kensuke pouted, "If you can't tell me, just say so."

     Ranma was glad they got to class.  He couldn't understand the other boy, he'd just told them.  They should just let him be a pilot on one mission, Ranma thought, See how fascinated he'd be afterwards.

     Ranma was irritated that the questions didn't stop, even during class.

     "We fulfilled our function," he heard Rei tell the eighth questioner, it was the same thing she'd said the other seven times.

     If I didn't know better, I'd say ole' Rei is ready to jump out of her skin, or out the window, Ranma considered intervening, since none of the rest of them seemed to be answering well enough, some people had closed in on Rei.  I think she'd be happy to go back to `spooky ole' Rei the outcast` about now.

     "Security," Nabiki said firmly, "We've answered what we are allowed."

     Ranma read her tone, those people better leave Rei and her alone, or there was going to be Hell to pay.

     And with Nabiki, it's going to be payable in cold, hard cash, Ranma cracked his knuckles to emphasize things for the slower among them.  The circle around Rei ebbed away.  Rei was staring at her clutched hands in her lap.  Ranma thought she was shivering.  "I didn't think anything scared you," Ranma told her.

     She looked back, narrowed her eyes.

     And people say she's hard to read, Ranma wondered if Antarctica was as cold as Rei's stare.

From the Journal of Ayami Hiroko

     The boss is still out of sorts.  When I told her that the pictures of Shinji Ikari and Raccoon were selling better, she actually snapped the pencil she was holding in half.  When I tried to assure her this could be a good or a bad thing, she didn't respond.

     I can read the boss better than she thinks I can, and I think I'm beginning to learn how to read Ayanami-san.  They don't know if the missing pilots are going to live or die, or when.

     Matsuda-san reports that the cult met again, last night, then met five BATTALIONS of Marines and Army: tanks, troops, strafing planes, everything.  I'm beginning to think that American Admiral would sail a battleship up a river to bring its guns to bear on an enemy.

     Of course the boss doesn't seem troubled by this, why should she?  If those things, with what they have planned for us, I can't think of them as people, came after her, she'd kill them.  And rightly so.

     She asked about the school mafia, the people we replaced.  The trials were quiet, let everyone save face all around.  Everybody around here knew it wasn't safe to make accusations, or talk to ONI or Army Intelligence about what they knew was happening.  So when she had a chance, she dropped both shoes and the irons on those bugs.  Half the school and nearly all the parents, made depositions for the U.S. military, those people killed got very fair trials.  The Americans were also very solicitous about letting the accused take the honorable way out, once they were through squeezing them for information.

     The boss worries about things, then gets them done.  Maybe that's why I feel the way I do about her.  I wish I could be half that brave, a tenth that determined.

     She isn't like that around the others, maybe only I see how much she cares, how much she hurts.  How much she has to do for the rest of us, yet she never complains.  Saotome-`san` and his honor, but he doesn't do anything, except what he's told to do.  Asuka is like any other queen bee, but she must be a good pilot, or they wouldn't keep her around.

     I see Ayanami leaving, maybe if I follow her, I can find out what's going on.

     She's fast! Hiroko was jogging to keep up with Rei, who was managing the fastest hobble Hiroko had ever seen.

     They were heading straight towards the NERV medical wing.  While it was technically public, you really needed a NERV I.D. or an Angel-related injury to get in.

     Hiroko opened the door for Rei, letting her pass through, then smiled at the guard and kept following Rei.

     "You should not be here," Rei said once the elevator doors closed, and the pair was alone inside it.  Hiroko noted nobody else wanted to be in an elevator with Rei.

     "You could have told the guards," Hiroko replied, "Let me guess, you have orders not to reveal what happened, but you want someone to tell the others."

     Rei nodded.

     "Why, so you don't have to talk to them?" Hiroko asked, got a flat stare in return.  "You talked to me."

     "You are Nabiki-kun's," Rei replied.

     Her what, her friend, her servant?  She couldn't mean her lover!  Or does she mean I belong to the boss? Hiroko considered, "There's some truth to that."

     The doors opened and Rei marched out, Hiroko practically had to run to keep up.  She stopped at a door no different from the others.  Rei opened it, let Hiroko see the oxygen tent, the hanging bottles and tubes, and the pale figure within.  Rei released the door, letting it close automatically.

     "Go," Rei said quietly.

     "Shinji's . . . " Hiroko said.

     "I cannot say," Rei replied, turned and marched down the hall.

     That's a definitive answer, if I've ever heard one, Hiroko turned and walked back down the hall and took the stairs to exit the building.  "No wonder the boss is out of sorts.  Two down, four to go," Hiroko paused, "That makes her an active pilot now, doesn't it.  I wonder if that makes her happy?" she glanced back up the stairs, "Or if the price was too high?"

Hidden Snapshots

     "The gold bullion is on the bottom," Nabiki had just gotten home from school.  She had wanted to talk with Hiroko, only to see her rushing after Rei, who was headed for the med center.  Or Ranma, who was last seen making a beeline for NERV, Nabiki didn't want to think about what he was doing.  She wasn't eager to talk to Asuka, especially after the dreams, and the feeling seemed mutual.  She was glad for a moment when she heard Ritsuko was home, instead she caught Misato and Ritsuko going through the trunk that seemed to be Jeff's major luggage.  Both older women started at Nabiki's silent approach.  She spotted the book she'd seen a few days earlier, and pulled it out.

     "That's his property," Ritsuko told her.

     "You're a fine one to talk, Doctor `Only-I-can-have-secrets`, was it even locked?" Nabiki indicated the set of burglar tools Misato had brought along.  Both of them managed to look like caught school girls.

     The book was a photo album, the first picture was a good one of Jeff, about age nine, more lively and less stern than he was now.  The second, Nabiki thought it was a clever double exposure, Jeff from the first picture, and a six-year-old, slightly chubby blonde version, staring cross-eyed at a butterfly on his nose, The nine-year-old was laughing at his, younger brother, Nabiki realized, The two boys from the watch picture.

     Next page, mother, father, two brothers, all in matching suits, except the mother had a skirt replacing pants.  All with the same stern expression.  Except the sardonic air of the six-year-old, That one's Jeff, and that picture was cropped from this one.  What did Shinji say about a brother?  Nabiki was aware that Misato and Ritsuko were now standing on either side of her, both staring over her shoulders.  The next few pages had a few more family pictures.  Then a newspaper clipping, an obituary.  "Samuel Bruce Davis, died 1939, parents . . . Davis, brother Jeff . . . smallpox."  There was a vaccine against smallpox by 1939, wasn't there? Nabiki wondered, she decided not to ask Ritsuko right now.

     Next picture, Jeff in a black suit waiting with the same steamer trunk they had open on the floor, next to a train.  The grimness that seemed always to be just under the clown, was clearly stamped on the boy in this picture.  Jeff in a suit, several older relatives and a few kids, at another train station.  Jeff and a lovely young girl about fourteen, both of them in cowboy clothes.  The girl seemed to be teaching Jeff how to use a rope lasso.  Jeff back in a black suit, tempered now, harder but not as brittle, with Abigail and the Dean at a Boston train station.  More pages alternating between the Western and Boston families, But never another with his birth parents, Nabiki wondered about that, Are they somewhere else?  Or doesn't he have any?     The one that struck her, was Jeff atop a horse, with both the Boston and Western families around him, congratulating him, but not his birth parents.  His pose and demeanor were more typical of Asuka in victory, than her rigidly composed teammate.

     Another newspaper clipping: "Doctors Davis, auto accident, survived by son Jeffrey age 10 attending Harvard, 1943.  University of Chicago."  Nabiki flogged her memory, Physicist and Chemist and University of Chicago, 1943.  The answer dropped on her like a bomb, the bomb, The Manhattan Project!  His parents were killed while working on the atom bomb?!  Nabiki realized she'd thought 'were killed', and all that implied, she wondered if Jeff knew, if he even suspected.

     More pictures, again alternating between a cowboy and college student.  A picture of Jeff and two older kids, Maybe 17 years old, she thought, That seems about right.  The girl, a very pretty Hispanic or black Irish, tolerating the grinning kid next to her.  On the other side a very handsome European boy, bemused by Jeff's and the girl's antics.  Jeff looked like a kid again, cotton candy stains on his face, a great big, goofy grin.  The two more `mature` kids had their fingers in 'V's over Jeff's head.

     Next page, same two kids.  The girl in an elegant western-style wedding dress, the boy holding her hands, wearing a policeman's uniform.  The invitation preserved next to the picture.  Facing that, another obituary: "Henry and Rica Lincoln . . . fire, San Francisco, 1947, that's while we were flying to Boston."

     "Yes," Ritsuko said quietly.

     Nabiki paged back through the album, "Good grief, does everybody this kid care about die on him?"  That explains the tears, he must have been putting this last obituary in the book, Nabiki thought.  She put the book back and closed the trunk, "Are you two `adults` quite through, or do you want to check his underwear too?"

     Ritsuko and Misato exchanged embarrassed looks.  "Your well-being is our responsibility," Misato managed.

     "That's why you're doing this while he's laid up unconscious, and Ranma isn't here, instead of waiting so you could ask," Nabiki said, "I assume Shinji and Asuka got this same treatment.  Well in that case, I should turn out all my stuff for inspection, or should I just leave and let you paw through my clothes and diary, and giggle?"

     Both women managed to look embarrassed.  "Fine, I'll leave." Nabiki walked out.  She had nothing to hide.  Only the prints were in her lock box, the important negatives, and her notebooks, were stored elsewhere.

     Nabiki was angry at the invasion of their privacy.  She understood they had the right and responsibility to do it.  But Misato's timing and methods automatically makes it suspect, she admitted.  She wasn't happy about Ritsuko going along with it, "If she wanted to know, she could have told the boys and me, marched in and looked.  Or done it right after we left for school.  It was as if they wanted to get caught."  And why would they want that? Nabiki asked herself, she'd never wondered if Kasumi went through her things, she assumed she did, she knew she and Akane had gone through Ranma's stuff a few times, separately and together.

     "At least we had the decency not to get caught," Nabiki said, looked around, wondering where her wanderings had led her.

     She recognized she was walking across the area where the battle had been, practically where Rei and Raccoon had been hit.  She scuffed around at the weird whorls of stone in the dirt.  The NERV technical teams had been over the place, trying to remove anything of informational use.

     "Well, I'm no geologist," she knelt near a very strange rock formation, "But I know the difference between limestone, pumice and obsidian."  She bent close to the intermingled rocks, "I also suspect they don't occur naturally next to each other.  Let alone mixed together like this.  Especially where there was only dirt a week before."  One piece of obsidian caught her eye, as long as her arm and veined through with other minerals.  It looked alive, considering what created it, perhaps it was.  She picked it up, brushed it off, "It feels like just an odd stone."

     She smiled, I'm going to take it home, and it will turn into a scary monster, she chuckled at the thought, actually, she had thought it would be an interesting peace offering for Ranma, To Ranma, she amended.  She was beginning to understand there might be things in his life, other that martial arts, at least here, without Genma and the fiance brigade's influence.  "He might appreciate an odd piece of `Modern` art," she carefully wrapped it up, Admit it, you're just guessing.

     "When I find you," she threatened, "I'll dig you out with a spoon."

     Nabiki awoke suddenly, looked around desperately, searching the floor, the walls, the ceiling for any trace.  I'm in Dr. Akagi's apartment! she reminded herself, There's nothing dangerous here.

     "Bad dreams?" Ritsuko asked.

     "No," Nabiki was aware that this was about the fifth time she'd awakened in a cold sweat, looking around like the building itself was going to attack her.  Ritsuko had been a good sport, and not said anything, the first four times.  "No dreams at all.  Sorry."

     "I don't think Ranma is sleeping either," Ritsuko said after listening for a moment.  She tossed the covers aside.  "Maybe your rock is a monster?"

     Nabiki frowned at Ritsuko as she walked out, she heard Ritsuko speaking with Ranma.  She doesn't know why she's so worried, she hasn't had any dreams at all.  Only the feeling that something is waiting to drop the other shoe, she admits, On my head.

     She heard Ritsuko enter.

     "I called Maya, it seems you two get your wish, she's bringing her kotatsu.  Since neither of you two are sleeping, I thought you might want to stay up and talk."

     "What about security concerns?" Nabiki asked.

     "They still exist," Ritsuko said, "What about yours?"

     Nabiki grimaced at that.

     Rei stared at the walls of her apartment.  She hadn't been able to sleep.  The Cthonians had not bothered her for several days.  What kept her awake, was her worry about Shinji-kun, and an expectation of more outre dreams.  When the dreams didn't come, she found her worries about the others chased themselves.  Until she couldn't relax enough to sleep.  She could understand about Shinji-kun, and maybe Nabiki-kun she could understand, her fear for the Second and the Fourth baffled her.

     She looked down at the cast on her arm and her leg.  The new bandages allowed her to see properly.  The injuries all still itched, but she'd been able to ignore that in the past, and get back to sleep.

     What of the others? she wondered, Are they disturbed as I am?  She decided to go see Shinji-kun, threw off the covers and got dressed.  I will not be able to sleep until I am sure.

     Asuka rolls over, punches the pillow.  She'd heard Misato stagger in half-an-hour ago.  Misato had gone straight to bed.  Her snoring confirms that, Asuka rolls over, lays there.

     "Okay, even if it means another stupid dream, fine, just let me go to sleep!"  She lays there watching the minute hand move.  "Okay, I give up!"

     She pulls the covers off her bed, and marches into Shinji's room, drops them on the floor.  She wraps herself in the covers, and closes her eyes.

Letter from Asuka Soryu Langley


     What we were worried about, happened.  I hope they don't follow Hans and Gunther, but I'm not certain.

     Despite our experiences, the dreams lately have been weirder that anything before.  Even physical manifestations.  I'll tell you more when I see you.

     There are concerns of what we called 'people mines', you know what I mean.  We know they're there, but there aren't any real minesweepers, even Kavon's old intelligence chief.  How's that for a surprise?  You read the reports about the pilots while I was sailing to the 'States.  That kind of thing.

     I have other doubts, but that's for another time.  With luck the problems will abate.  I hope.

     More later.


     Asuka put the pen aside.  She'd had to go through ten pages of doodles of Wondergirl before she could find a clean piece of stationary on Spineless's desk.  She felt a little guilty about that, except the stack had been in the middle of his desk, out in the open.  And who doesn't know he's mooning for Wondergirl? she thought.

     She was also disgusted she couldn't get any sleep in her own room, but had managed a few short naps sleeping on Spineless's floor.

     "If I want a good night sleep, I'll have to sleep in his hospital room," she said disgustedly.  "Nobody would do that."  She laid down on the floor again, hoping to get a little more sleep before morning.

     Maya walked into the Akagi living room, and poured the tea for the three others around the kotatsu.  Ritsuko smiled, "I did warn you."

     Maya looked at her sempai, she admired and respected her, but after getting dragged out of her own apartment at 2:00 A.M., there were limits.  "Yes."

     "Sorry about this," Ranma offered.

     "Evidently Asuka's up too," Ritsuko said, "I would have thought after bad dreams two nights running, you'd all be sleeping soundly."

     "It's like being ready to take a punch," Ranma said, "You tense up, and you can't untense."

     "Aren't there exercises to relax?" Maya asked.     "None that I know, worked," Ranma replied.

     "What about Rei?" Nabiki asked, "Has anyone talked to her?"

     "She doesn't have a phone," Ritsuko made room for Maya at the table heater.

     Maya settled in, and blushed when someone rubbed her knee.

     "Nabiki!" Ritsuko said, "Behave, you aren't so old I can't give you a spanking."

     Nabiki innocently pointed at Ranma, who was oblivious to what had happened.  The girl was caught, knew it, but wasn't ready to admit it, "Are there any plans to give Rei a telephone?  With more of us, it would make sense."

     "Who'd teach her to use it?" Ranma said, saw Nabiki's angry look, "I mean answer it.  You've said she doesn't even answer a knock on the door."

     Well, that is a problem, Maya thought.

     "Tell her it could be the Commander or Shinji-kun," Nabiki suggested.

     "That might work," Ritsuko said sourly.

     Maya wondered why sempai had such a problem with the girl.  She followed orders, she did her best at whatever she was ordered to do.  What they, we, ordered her to do.  And she's ordered to do things even I'm not cleared to know about, Maya admitted.  Maya didn't understand why the friction.

     "So what do you want to talk about?" Ritsuko asked, "Just remember, some things are classified."

     "Where'd you and Misato meet Kaji?" Nabiki asked.

     "Like that," Ritsuko replied, "How about your dreams."

     "That too," Nabiki said sourly.

     Maya smiled at that.

Polish and Roughen

     "Rei-san, Rei!" she heard a voice calling her name, "Ayanami-san!"

     She opened her eyes, looked around the hospital room, saw Shinji-kun, still in the plastic tent, but sitting up.

     "Ayanami-san, are you all right?" he asked, his expression clearly troubled.

     "Yes." More than you could know, she thought, I am now, she shifted in the chair where she'd fallen asleep.

     "But, you're hurt," he argued.

     "I will survive," she stood carefully, "I will get a nurse."  She turned and left to get medical help.  If he was awake, then he would recover.

     Rei waited patiently in the examination room, while Dr. Akagi ran her tests on Shinji-kun.  Rei was concerned that both the doctor and Shinji-kun seemed clumsy and slightly unfocused.  Rei doubted she would harm Shinji-kun, but the tests were taking twice to three times as long as they usually did.

     Unless the doctor is intentionally drawing this out, Rei thought, but could find no reason why the doctor would do that.

     "Well," Doctor Akagi sighed, "You're probably fit enough to go home, but you'll still need bed rest."  She turned to Rei, "And you are going to be late for school."

     Rei nodded, she didn't know what else to do.  "I will tell the Second Children."

     "Asuka as a nurse," Shinji-kun sighed, "Can't I stay here?"

     Ritsuko smiled, "No, I think you'll find she's a very good nurse.  If you do what she tells you, and I'll make sure she knows exactly what you are, and are not to do."

     "I will visit you," Rei told him.  Rei knew Dr. Akagi would explain things carefully to the Second, and she would do as she was told.

     "Don't forget to have Asuka pick up his assignments," Dr. Akagi told her, then turned back to Shinji, "You're going to be bored just sitting around, but you'll heal quicker."

     "What happened to me?" Shinji asked

     "The nearest we can come up with, was systemic shock, like a cross between a drug overdose and an allergic reaction," Doctor Akagi told them.

     "What does that mean about piloting?" Shinji asked.

     "You don't get out of it that easily," Dr. Akagi told him, "You show no reaction to the regular L.C.L., but if it gets a few hundred years old, you might want to avoid it."

     "Thank you, Doctor," Shinji bowed.

     "Don't thank me, thank your nurse here," Doctor Akagi pointed to Rei, "She stayed with you every day after school, and all last night."

     The praise embarrassed Rei.  "You should not be alone."

     "Well, I want to hold you here for a few more hours.  I'll transfer you back to Misato's apartment this afternoon, after school."

     "Is she worried, has she been by?" Shinji asked.

     "We've all been worried," Ritsuko told him as she left.

     "I will return after school," Rei told him, "I wish to tell the others."

     "Thank you, Ayanami-san, for everything," he said.

     "There is snow on the railroad," she said as she left.

     She caught up with Dr. Akagi quickly, "The Captain did not visit him."

     "Knowing that won't help his recovery," Dr. Akagi told her, "You shouldn't tell him either."

     She was confused, "But the truth - "

     "Do you want him to recover or not?" Dr. Akagi said, even Rei could tell she was angry.

     Rei nodded.

     "Then he doesn't need to know until after he's recovered."

     "I understand," Rei said.  She left, I serve Commander and Dr. Akagi, requiring silence, this is just another service.

     Ranma watched the others make a big fuss over Shinji.  Ranma was glad Shinji was back, but they acted like it was a cause for a party.

     As they were transferring Shinji to a wheelchair, Kaji walked in, "Hi guys.  Hi Asuka."

     "Hello," Asuka said, concentrated on Shinji.

     "Well, you're going home, good to see you up and around.  It'll be a load off Misato's mind," Kaji tousled Shinji's hair, then continued down the corridor.

     "Kind of unfriendly," Ranma told Asuka as she brushed Shinji's hair back into an attempt at order, "Something wrong between you two?"

     "Saotome, butt out," Asuka confronted him, "You obviously don't know what you're talking about."

     Ranma backed up from her anger, "Sorry."

     "So you're going home," Misato said from the door, then stepped out of the way as the wheelchair rolled through it, "So what are you going to be doing?  Lying around all day, skipping school."

     "Asuka will bring in his homework," Nabiki said, "She can tutor him to keep him current."

     "Ha, I'd like to see that," Misato said, "I've seen Asuka's grades."

     Ranma stepped back from Asuka, from the heat, he was wondering how Shinji didn't burst into flames.

     "It's not my fault I can't read kanji," Asuka grumbled, staring daggers at Misato.

     "You'll do fine," Nabiki said.

     Asuka grimly nodded.  Ranma wondered about that.

     As they walked through the corridors, Misato was chattering about this and that, all fluff, no substance.

     "You've been wandering around NERV after school," Nabiki said just loud enough for him to hear.  "Looking for something in particular?"

     "Naw, just looking at the people," he replied.  He was remembering how Nabiki reacted to Asuka saying 'Shampoo' Or was it Xian Pu? and 'Akane', using them to mutter unflattering comparisons to someone at school.  Does that mean Asuka went into your past Nabiki-chan, like I went into Raccoon's?  He'd been wandering the corridors of NERV, looking at the faces, finding many of those he'd last seen as mutilated corpses in the dream.  It may have been a dream, but I bet it was accurate, he glanced at Rei, limping beside Shinji's wheelchair, Was that really you, trying to shoot Raccoon?

     He looked around at his fellow pilots, If Asuka went to `Nabiki-land`, and I went to `Raccoon-ville`, did Nabiki go to Asuka's past?  He looked into the room they walked by, at the other pilot in an oxygen tent, If it was an exchange, then . . . he thought about it, I'll need a test.  None of us want to talk about it, he shuddered, If I ever see things like those demons again, it will be too soon.

     He followed them out of the hospital, helped them load Shinji aboard a car to head home.  He knew they'd need his help at the other end to unload.

     Ranma stood atop Akagi-sensei's apartment building, doing his evening practice.  Nabiki had gone out for some reason, and Akagi-sensei was staying late at the lab, so he was alone.  Alone with his thoughts, I need a test, something only Asuka would know.  Something that Nabiki might have learned.  He sighed, it was frustrating, the answer would be in the sciences, something he had no interest in, at all.  There was a chance he could find out who he was, before whatever dropped him in NERV's lap.  But he knew he couldn't come out and ask for what he wanted, from either of the girls.

     He didn't like having to guess about who he was, why he did the things he did.  Why was he afraid of cats?  Why did he keep saying things that made people so mad at him?  Why did he have to turn absolutely everything into a competition?  If Asuka, Misato, Nabiki and Rei had a beauty contest, one word from Raccoon or Shinji would get me, Ranko, to compete, Ranma stopped his kata, his thoughts and worries had disrupted the flow of his exercises, "And I'd do everything I could to win."  That disgusted him.

     He looked across the distance at Misato's apartment building, "There is the first set."  He stepped to the edge of the roof, and leapt to the nearest roof, then to next, and the next.

     The only light at Misato's apartment was in Shinji's room.  He hadn't seen Misato's car, so she wasn't home yet, What a surprise, he thought.

     Ranma also saw Rei hanging from Shinji's window sill, one-handed, six stories up, peering into Shinji's room.  How did she get up there?  Especially with her arm and leg in a cast! he silently landed on the balcony near to her.

     He leaned over to look inside the room, Shinji sitting up with Asuka's help.  He watched Asuka feeding Shinji in his bed.  "Jealous?" he asked Rei, Asuka reacted to the sound, Oops.

     The impact surprised him, from Rei backhanding him off the building with her cast.  As he dropped to the ground, he watched her let go and drop away from the window.

     Asuka yanked the curtain away from the window.  She looked around, I wish I had that pistol again, "I'm getting paranoid," Asuka told Shinji, "There's nothing out there."

     Shinji was too embarrassed to argue about Asuka returning to feed him.

     She smiled at that, he'd tried to explain that girls didn't do things like that.  'I bet your mother did,' she'd told him as she settled him in the crook of her arm, 'Just like mine.'  She missed her mother terribly, wondered if `little Asuka` made her mama proud, up in Heaven.

     Ranma shook himself after his long fall.  He saw Rei walking towards him, "What's wrong with you?!  We were on the sixth floor!  Why did you hit me?"

     Ranma watched Rei advance towards him, with a look of fury twisting her face.  I've never seen her look that mad, Ranma began to step backward.

     Rei accelerated to continue to close on him.

     Even when that thing was killing us, Ranma turned and ran away at his best speed.

     After a few minutes, he slowed down enough to glance behind him.  He let out a breath and came to a stop, Rei wasn't pursuing.  "What got into her, I think she would really have tried to kill me."

     He wasn't sure what she thought she could do to him in a fight, but after all the killing in the dream last night, he wasn't sure he wanted to find out either.

     Rei looked at the apartment, hoping that the Second and Shinji had gone back to what they had been doing.  She hadn't expected Saotome to manage to land uninjured.  In retrospect, she was glad she hadn't injured him.

     Why was he so anxious to disturb the moment for Shinji, the Second . . . and me - ? she remembered the feelings she'd had as she'd watched the Second supporting Shinji-kun and feeding him.  I felt as if I was on fire.  I wanted to charge in and . . . do something.  But after I watched, the fire went away, leaving only a pleasant warmth.  The Second was not threatening Shinji-kun, not trying to displace me, she honestly cared for him.  As harsh as she often is, she cares for him almost as much as I.

     She felt embarrassed watching them after that, But I had to, to understand the Second, as well as be there for him.  The anger returned full force, Rei found herself shaking, Does the Fourth have to destroy any other quiet/contemplative moment anyone around him has?  Does he hate us all so much?  Is violence the only language he understands? she dropped to her knees, the shaking has become so bad, "I can speak that language too."  The wave of fury threatened to overwhelm her, Better than he can.

     She steadied her raging thoughts by reminding herself of the scene between Shinji-kun and the Second, by reminding herself of the words and attentions of Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun.  She felt the storm calm, felt herself regaining control.  She often wondered why people thought she was emotionless, when all too often, her thoughts and feelings raced out of control and overwhelmed her, until she could barely even move or react, all she could do was watch the others.  She feared such loss of control, Someday it will happen when I am needed.

     She stood, pulled off center by the weight of the casts, I will dispense with this, she glanced around, When it will not risk detection.

Return and Recovery

     The five pilots walked together to school.  Dr. Akagi agreed that a half-day of school shouldn't tax Shinji too much.  From his walkway atop the fence, Ranma watched Asuka and Rei quietly competing to `help` Shinji.  Yeah he looks unwell, but even without the casts, Rei looks like she went up against the heavyweight champion, he thought.  He also remembered when he'd walked up to Shinji and the glare he got from Rei, That girl can hold a grudge.  He'd backed off quickly, he wasn't happy about the interest Nabiki had shown in that little scene.  He expected to have to explain it all to her in great detail.

     Later, he thought, Today I've got a plan and a trap of my own.  He'd called Asuka on the phone, no more confrontations with Rei, and asked a question straight out of a physics textbook.  Finding the right question had taken most of Friday afterschool.  All I have to do is wait, ask the question and watch Nab-chan, simple, he thought as they walked along.

     At lunch he's ready.  "Asuka, what did you mean humans can't tunnel like quantum mechanical objects?" Ranma asks.

     He notes Nabiki's look of shock.

     "You're misinterpreting the Uncertainty Principle," Asuka angrily tells him.

     Ranma notices that also throws Nabiki off.  I've got my answer.  Asuka went into your world Nabiki, and you went into Asuka's.  "Thanks, I still don't understand it," Ranma told Asuka, Therefore since I went to Boston, Jeff knows all about my past.

     "Well then quit wasting my time!" Asuka pulled out her lunch and headed to where Shinji and Rei were sitting.  "Say Wondergirl, did you bring your chessboard?"


     "Great, winner gets to fix Shinji dinner on Sunday," Asuka offers.

     Rei nods.

     Well the good news is: I finally have a way to get the answers I want, Ranma thought as the two girls set up the board, The bad news is: that way is inaccessible, and dying.  Ranma sighed, started in on lunch, while Rei made her first move.

     Dr. Akagi looked over the results from the ongoing sync tests of the four pilots.  She was glad she had postponed this test until after the Saturday half day of school.  She figured that the kids could use some normal time together.  She was glad to see that the data had proven this assumption out.

     She turned to see Maya entering the control room, with preliminary records, "Well Shinji is down, that's not unexpected.  The other surprise is Rei seems to have completely recovered."

     "I know, she came in Friday afternoon to ask for the casts to be removed," Maya sat down across from her, "Then I used the fluoroscope.  The bones were completely healed.  If I didn't know they'd been broken, I wouldn't believe it ever happened.  How are the others?  Nabiki seemed very nervous about the tests."

     "It showed, Nabiki is the lowest ranked, again.  Nothing I did could calm her down."  She'd released the girl once it was clear she was still the lowest.

     "Sempai," Maya started carefully, "Breaking and entering, instead of using your legitimate authority, may have undermined her confidence.  In you, and in herself.  Asuka's rate was up because you trusted her with responsibility."

     "What about Rei?" Ritsuko evaded the question, watched her assistant.

     Maya blushed, "I think she's pleased Shinji is well."

     "I agree, I just can't believe she doesn't have a problem with Asuka looking after Shinji."

     "Then you haven't seen how Asuka has been taking care of him.  I think Rei is studying her methods," Maya admitted.

     "I don't think she'll be able to pull it off," Ritsuko smiled at that, "Did you hear how Ranma reacted to Nabiki's gift?"

     Maya laughed, "I don't think Nabiki-chan meant to give him a sword."

     Ritsuko joined her laugh, "I'm afraid Ranma still treats everything as either combat or competition.  The problem is, the edge on that obsidian is sharp enough to cut.  I am afraid that he might injure himself practicing with it."

     "I don't think he will, sempai," Maya assured her.

     "Where are they planning to go?" Ritsuko asked.

     Maya smiled, "Asuka is going with Rei, to buy supplies for the dinner Rei has to make for Shinji.  Somehow they got Ranma to go with them."

     "Are we invited?" Ritsuko asked.

     "I don't think it's going to be anyone but Shinji and the two girls."

     Nabiki had wandered over to the medical wing after she'd been `released`, Told you aren't good enough, she thought.  She stood over the body in the oxygen tent.  She walked over to the watches, opened them and listened to the tunes, slightly out of phase, but they remained in perfect sync.

     "What made these so damned important?" she asked the room's unconscious occupant, "Stupid, sentimental thing to risk your life on," she told him and left.

     In the conference room, the representations of SEELE, not the monoliths, are in a panic.

     "The Angel of Time was never part of the original scheme," Kehl insisted, almost unhinged by events.

     "If things aren't running contrary to the plan, and the plan is on schedule, we are still in control.  However, such distractions affect the timetable," Gendo assures them, "We are working hard to get back on our schedule."

     He paused to let the flock of panicked chickens settle, slightly, "But the plan is evidently not comprehensive, we must be more flexible, to deal with deviations, distractions and the gambits of various madmen."

     "You do not dictate our policies," NERV U.S. told him.

     "Agreed, the Universe does, for the moment.  If we do not bend with it, it will break us," Gendo replied.

     The SEELE people accept this and fade.

     So, once again, we put the cat among the pigeons,  Gendo silently congratulates himself, The only difficulty is keeping them off-balance without driving them to take desperate action.

     He leaves the conference room, Fuyutsuki is waiting for him, "Your advice on the next stage?"

     "Most of the pieces are in place," Fuyutsuki admits, "But so soon may be pushing things."

     "The pilots must be ready to fulfill their mission on our race's day of revivification," Gendo replies, "Nothing else can fulfill that purpose.  If we have to push them, we will push them.  Or our enemies will."

     Alarms sound throughout the base as an earthquake strikes.

     "The command deck?" Fuyutsuki asks as the shaking subsides.

     Gendo nods, walking swiftly in that direction.

     As soon as the shaking stops, Ritsuko turns to Maya and Nancy, "Get them out of the simulators," Ritsuko orders, "Kids, as soon as you're out, head directly to the EVAs and launch.  Don't stop for anything except my orders, or new orders from Misato or the Commanders."

     "Sempai," Maya tells her, "You have no authority . . . "

     She sees the concern on both her assistants' faces, "They're safer outside in the EVAs, than anywhere else."

     "On our way," Asuka replies.  "Hai," Rei.  "Yeah," Ranma.  "Okay," Shinji.

     I am an idiot for not trusting them, Ritsuko tells herself.  "We have to get to the command deck."

     "Internal communications are out," Nancy reports, "So are externals."

     "So we'll coordinate with portables," Ritsuko replies, "I know, underground they're almost only line of sight, but we don't have another choice."  The internal phones aren't supposed to require power.  Unless they knocked out the main interchange between here and there.

     Ritsuko watched the four pilots scramble out of the simulators.  When it was clear Shinji wasn't moving fast enough, Asuka slung his arm over her shoulder and motioned for the other two to go on ahead.

     "Maya," Ritsuko orders, "Go to Search and Rescue, they are to find Pilot Tendo, and get her to the EVA bays, prepping her for immediate launch."

     "Understood," Maya stands, "But she won't have an EVA."

     "Insurance, go," Ritsuko heads for the door, "Nancy, you're with me, I may need your muscle to open some doors."

     "You'll need my muscles?" Nancy follows her out of the control room.

     "Just because I beat you arm wrestling once," Ritsuko tells as the pair jogs down the corridor, "As I remember, you were a little drunk."

     "And you, dear doctor, had just drunk little Katsuragi-chan under the table."

     "It was the only way to convince her not to do a striptease," Ritsuko defends herself, "It must have been an early onset hangover giving me strength."

     Nancy nods, "And Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, and . . . "

     "Report," Gendo shouted as soon as he and Fuyutsuki reached the command deck.

     "Reports are sketchy, internal and external communications are out," Lt. Baker replied, "We have security personnel making surveys of all critical systems."

     Fuyutsuki looked over to Gendo, who shook his head.

     "Restore communications," Gendo ordered, "Send a runner to the EVA bays, I order all EVAs prepped for immediate launch.  They are to launch with whichever pilots are available."

     "Sir, yes, sir," Baker signalled for one of the radio tech to get the word out.

     "I don't like this," Gendo said.

     Nabiki had been dodging broken glass and falling plaster for what seemed like half-an-hour, she realized it was probably less than a minute.  The crews were collecting and resetting the fallen equipment, and sweeping up the broken glass.

     "You are in great danger, Tendo Nabiki."

     Nabiki whirled around to see Belldandy standing there.

     "There's going to be another earthquake?" Nabiki looked around, "Or a fire?"

     "No, the danger will be more personal, and more directed.  I cannot be more specific," Belldandy told her.

     Nabiki thought the goddess looked ashamed as she turned away. Great a cryptic message and gone, Nabiki thought, then she started looking around for any weapons or escape routes.

Reaction Under Pressure

     Ranma was running flat out, it irritated him that Rei managed to be just a little faster.  Her almost waddling run shouldn't have given her the speed it did, he'd tried it himself, and it was pathetically slow.  He wondered if anyone ever taught her how to run properly.  Yet she's obviously faster, and she knows it, he thought, She's so much faster she can taunt me by keeping just ahead of me.  He wondered what he could have possibly done to get her so mad at him.

     They turned onto the suspended walkway over the main air shaft.  Ranma realized Rei was leading him on the most direct path to the EVA bays, Rei was about 2 meters ahead of him.  As they reached the midpoint, a loud twang announced the collapse.  Ranma jumped forward, trying to collect Rei and catch the edge of the bridge.  I couldn't get the start! he realized as his leap fell short of the target.  He felt Rei wrap herself around him as they dropped.

     Ranma woke quickly, looked around at the debris-filled pit he had landed in with . . . "Rei!"  He dashed around to find the girl.  For once, he didn't mind his odd night vision.

     He saw her, then realized the piece of rebar wasn't behind her, but through her.

     "Don't," the girl's quiet word stopped him, and started a whole list of additional worries.

     "Are you . . . ?"

     "I am alive," she replied, "The rod seals the wound."

     He stopped, he remembered the sight of the rough surfaces being deflected, Probably by Rei's AT field, he thought, I didn't know she could generate one, "Are you . . . all right?" it sounded dumb even to him.

     "I will live."

     "Why did you protect me, and not yourself?" he asked.

     She coughed softly, saying nothing.

     "Can I help?  Is there something I can do?" Ranma walked towards her.

     The silence dragged on.  Ranma fretted, he hated seeing anyone, even Rei lying in a heap like that.

     "Cutting the upper and lower ends simultaneously," Rei said.

     Ranma walked towards her, careful not to shift the chunk of concrete she was impaled on.  He saw the blood staining the concrete, both from the rod running through her stomach and out her back, and from a head wound that also stained her hair.  Her expression was one of tolerating an imposition, not the pain of wounding.  He remembered all Maya's jokes about head wounds, considering the evidence that he'd suffered repeated head trauma.  Now he was glad he had the information.

     I have to keep her awake, he took off his shirt and draped it over her as best he could, to keep her warm, If she falls asleep, she may never wake up.  "What do you think happened?"

     She looked at him, then closed her eyes, "I wait, you go."

     Ranma shifted nervously, Rei wasn't his favorite person, and he knew he wasn't hers either, but he couldn't just leave her like this, and he couldn't bring himself to yell at her to stay awake.  "I don't think I can climb out without covering you in loose debris.  Maybe I should just yell for help."

     She frowned at that.

     "They must have turned here," Shinji told Asuka, "The bridge is out."

     "Which way do we go then?" Asuka didn't want to admit he knew the base's layout better than she did.

     "This way, there's a maintenance shaft just a ways over," Shinji pointed.

     She half-carried half-dragged him the way he pointed, she had a bad feeling she knew where Horseface and Wondergirl really were, but they had to get to the EVAs, everything else was secondary.  "So how did you learn about all these tunnels and corridors?"

     "Ayanami-san told me," Shinji admitted, "She talks about it, when we're together."

     "Great," she teased, "You're alone with a pretty girl, and the sweet nothings she whispers in your ear, are about architecture.  Maybe I should get her a date with Frank Lloyd Wright."

     "It's not like that!" Shinji protested as they entered the corridor, "She just likes to talk about what she's interested in, what she's read about."

     I'll have to buy her a Kama Sutra, and see what happens next, Asuka thought, Or maybe a college biology text.  "So what do you tell her about?"

     "I . . . I talk about stuff."

     "What kind of stuff?" Asuka demanded as she threaded her way through the fallen debris, Shinji was practically dead weight now, necessity tempted her to sling him over her shoulder, and just run, But he'd probably throw up on me.  Just keep it together Spineless, for a few more minutes.  "You're awfully evasive.  Are you afraid I'll tell Misato what you and Wondergirl are doing?  Don't worry, with what I've heard Kaji mention about what she and Ritsuko used to do with him, nothing you could possible say would shock her.  Unless you got everybody's favorite robot pregnant."

     She could feel the heat of his blush through her plugsuit.

     "We don't do that!" he said angrily.

     Good, Asuka hid her smile, It's good you're willing to stand on your feet about something.

     "Wait a second!" Shinji said, "Did you call her a 'pretty girl'?"

     My mistake, she gulped, Well I started this.

     Asuka thought fast, "I never said she wasn't pretty.  Like one of those china dolls with a painted face.  A pretty thing you set up on a shelf and look at, but not something alive you can touch or play with.  She's boring, Misato's car has more personality, the things we throw out from the refrigerator have more personality than her!"

      "That's not true," Shinji replied, "She's very nice."

     "She's still boring!" Asuka replied, "But I guess you have to start with dollies, then work your way up to real girls.  It's perfectly natural at your age.  Of course if you're still playing with dolls when you're forty, then you're just a dirty old man."

     "She is a real person," Shinji insisted quietly.

     "Yeah sure," Asuka opened the access hatch at the end of the tunnel, she was glad the EVA bays were close, "So was Pinocchio, after the fairy cast her spell.  Before that, he was just a doll that walked and talked.  So when are you planning to cast your spell?"

     She could hear Shinji's slight snarl, she smiled to herself, Things are working out, if he'll fight for Wondergirl, maybe he'll fight for himself.  Then something occurred to her, If even a quarter of what Kaji said about him and Misato, and Ritsuko, was true, why didn't they ever get pregnant?  I can't imagine them being responsible when they were all as drunk as Kaji described.

     They entered the bay, Asuka was tired out by carrying him.  She was glad he was already in his plugsuit, she had no desire to have to dress him.  "Load him up!" she ordered the crews, who helped Shinji into the command chair, then loaded it into the plug while she climbed into Unit 02's plug.

     She didn't really need any help out there, especially Spineless's, But only an idiot goes into battle without another set of eyes, someone to guard your back.  All the EVA's systems came alive, except communications with base/command, No loss there.

     "Spi . . . Shinji," she said firmly, "Fall in behind.  Just keep an eye out for everything trying to get around or behind us.  Can you handle that?"

     "Hai," he managed.

     "The quicker we get done, the quicker we can go back and look for Wondergirl and Horseface."  She flipped the radio over to the SAR frequency to get them working.

     Shinji didn't reply, but he followed her out, That's good enough, she thought.  Their enemies burned like dozens of little stars.

     "Asuka, they're mainly at the medical wing," Shinji told her.

     Good, she thought, Put him in an EVA, and he becomes a human being. "Good eyes, let's head over there Spineless, we'll smash all we can on the way over, then let them come to us, understand?" she replied, already advancing.  She thought, If our enemies are stupid enough to come straight at us, we'll let them.

     Several of the creatures were crushed by each of them as they advanced.  Asuka was glad the creatures were leaving the tethers alone, what worried her was as the creatures attacked in greater numbers, the temperature of the L.C.L. seemed to be declining.  From their heat attacks, they should have been warming the EVAs, and the L.C.L..  Without the communications from the command deck, they didn't have the full telemetry capability.

     As her knife sliced through another one, falling as gray powder to the ground, she felt a noticeable drop in the L.C.L.'s temperature.  Maybe I'm just getting chills worrying about where the others are, she tried to rationalize her reaction, Shinji's doing fine.  No more of those things will get into the medical wing.

     Several fire trucks had moved up to support them.

     "I wish we could go inside and help," Shinji's concern mirrored her own.

     "Baka," she replied, "How could we fit?"  Besides, we're drawing all the enemies' fire.

Defying the Enemy Doesn't Define the Hero

     Nabiki was having a difficult time of it.  She wasn't sure what these big flaming things were, but she thanked Belldandy, and whoever else was looking out for her, that the first makeshift weapon she'd tried was a CO2 extinguisher.

     She'd heard the alert, but the monsters made sure she hadn't been able to get out of the building.  So she fought in here.  She'd already exhausted two of the big extinguishers, she hadn't found a fourth, and this one was running out.

     She'd heard of ball lightning, a piece of plasma, if it could be intelligent, and malevolent, that's what this was.  She'd seen glimpses of red and purple through the windows, indicating Unit 01 and 02 were out there, but not orange or green-gray of Units 00 and 04.  Misato typically massed the EVAs, it wasn't like her to split them up, No matter how much sense that would make, Nabiki thought, Even the idiots back home knew not to bunch up too much.

     A stream from a firehose caught the last of the things full force.  The fire captain called to her, "Pilot Tendo, follow us.  We have orders to take you to the EVAs."

     "What about the people here?" she asked as she headed towards them.

     "The EVAs will do a better job than a girl with a fire extinguisher."

     She had to admit that made sense, An entire fire company to guard just me? she thought, Interesting, and disturbing.  "Where are Ayanami-san and Saotome-san."

     "We don't know," they told her as they hurried her through the corridors, "The earthquake caused some damage, they could be farther away from the EVAs than you are."  They transferred her out of the building and into a fire truck, which sped away.  Nabiki turned back to watch the monitor on top of the truck covering their retreat with a constant stream of water.

     "Like Early morning,

     Blotting out the Evening Stars,

     Red and Purple EVAs," she said quietly, she shook her head, I've hung around Kuno too long.  She watched the Units reduce the numbers of the attackers.

     Combat, she wondered, What is it going to be like?  What will it be like . . . to kill?  She suddenly was a lot less eager, she started hoping Rei and Ranma would get to the EVAs, since if only one made it, she'd have to pilot the other one.

     "You never told me why you protected me," Ranma said, I have to keep her awake.

     The girl considered, "You are fragile.  The most fragile," she told him.

     "I'm the toughest of all of you," he replied angrily.

     "No," Rei replied quietly, "Even now, I am still me.  Lose even a finger, and you would cease to be, Ranma."

     "What's that supposed to mean?" Ranma demanded, She's just hurt and talking crazy! he reminded himself.

     Rei was silent for a while, as if searching for the words.  "Your body is Ranma, nothing else," she said finally.

     "What else is there?" he asked

     "Mind.  Spirit.  Duty.  Love.  Your reflection in others," Rei said dreamily, "Beyond your skin, you do not exist."

     "What kind of a crack is that, I exist, I'm right here, in this pit, sitting right next to you.  I'm here, all of me!" Ranma shot back.

     "I am not," Rei replied, "Ranko is not."  She sighed and closed her eyes again.

     Ranma paced the pit, fuming, She's just hurt, so she's not making any sense.  Don't get worked up about it.  He carefully made his way back to where she was lying, "That isn't true.  Ranko's just a fiction they dreamed up, to cover up my curse."

     It chilled him to the bone, the way Rei smiled at him.

     They drove into the EVA bays through the access tunnel the EVAs usually left through.  EVA Units 00 and 04 were still awaiting pilots.  Nabiki mentally flipped a coin, deciding on 'the old warrior', over the berserker.  She didn't bother with a plugsuit, she could get another school uniform, I don't know why I'm rushing.  I'm not even sure I want to do this, she thought as she went over the `crash start` procedure, to get the EVA out as quickly as she possibly could, after they told her Commander Ikari's orders.

     The command radio was only getting the conversation between Asuka and Shinji.

     "Keep moving Spineless, we're down to the last ones," Asuka's voice and image appeared in her mind's eye, like a picture within a picture.  Much more than the voice-only she'd gotten from previous experiences.  A similar window of Shinji appeared, "I think they're trying to draw us away from the medical wing."

     "I'll be there in 20 seconds," Nabiki told them.

     "They finally let you out on your own," Asuka replied, "Get over here.  Stay near, but off, the road, don't squash anything you don't have to.  We'll nursemaid you through anything else."

     Nabiki frowned, and rushed to the battle site, paralleling the road, "I'm here."

     "Okay, nothing gets past you, Ice Princess," Asuka ordered, "Spineless, keep an equal distance between both of us, be ready to move in either direction to support us, watch our backs."

     "Got it," Shinji replied.

     Nabiki stopped near the hospital.  Keeping an eye out for any flame creatures.  She was careful not to step on the fire trucks or the fire hoses that were heading into the building.  She almost couldn't imagine fighting room to room with a firehose, knowing the patients and the delicate equipment could be 'extinguished' all too easily.

     Asuka swept through the area, sprinting forward, stopping to watch and listen, then sprinting forward again.  Nabiki was walking in the opposite sense, clockwise around the medical wing, while Asuka moved counterclockwise.  Shinji adjusting the distance between the two girls automatically.

     "It's clear," Asuka declared after enlarging the circuit to two miles distant from the medical center.  "Nothing from headquarters and the spotters don't have anything."

     Nabiki sighed, she'd been out here, but she hadn't fought.

     "Ice Princess, help Spineless back to the bays, then standby to help him out of the plug," Asuka ordered.

     Who put you in charge? Nabiki thought, she didn't say it because the orders made sense, "What about Ranma and Rei?"

     "Assuming they aren't waiting for us, that EVA is better at crawling through corridors than mine.  We go looking," Asuka replied.

     Terrific, Nabiki thought as she followed Shinji back to the bays.  His EVA moved sluggishly.

     "Ice Princess, is your life support working properly?" Asuka asked.

     "Are you in trouble?" Nabiki replied.

     "It's cold," Shinji told her, "Maybe we should check them out?"

     Nabiki didn't have any answers.

     Shinji practically flopped out of the command chair onto the stretcher, they carried him away.  Nabiki had Unit 04 climb out of the bays, into the access corridors.  They were a tight squeeze.  Nabiki enjoyed that Asuka and Unit 02 were soon left behind.  Asuka's stream of instructions was leading her through the corridors to where they last saw Ranma and Rei.

     "You saw the bridge collapse!  And you just left them!?" Asuka's offhanded admission outraged Nabiki, "They could have been hurt, or killed!"

     "If we hadn't stopped those things," Asuka replied coldly, "They would have had a lot of company.  That's why I told SAR on the radio, and sent you ahead.  I'm hurrying the rescue as much as I can."

     Nabiki swallowed her fury.  She was beginning to hate the cold reasonableness that underlined Asuka, Rei and Raccoon's actions.  Misato was better, she was either apathetic or a ball of rage, Ritsuko felt she needed to justify her actions.  Not those three.  The rage made her eager to smash though the piles of debris that stood between her, and Ranma and Rei.  She understood the need to be careful, but she didn't feel like being careful.

     She arrived at the collapsed bridge, well ahead of Asuka or SAR.

     "Don't climb down there," Asuka warned.  "Try to bridge the gap, I'll climb across, you lower me down and help me get them out of there."

     Nabiki was tempted to simply charge down there, just to spite the redheaded know-it-all.  Asuka's `orders` and assumption they'd be followed were grating on Nabiki, but she could see the damaged concrete around the hole, if Ranma and Rei were down there, climbing down would have bombarded them with rubble.

     Okay, you're right this time, again, Nabiki used the Unit's many arms to climb across the hole along the walls and undamaged supports, so when Asuka and Unit 02 arrived, all she had to do was crawl to the middle of Unit 04, and let Nabiki lower her down.

     Nabiki felt weird: she could almost feel the hands around her waist, the strain of the load, the sensation of the concrete under her `feet`.  Asuka's grip actually tickled, Nabiki concentrated on the stability of the floor and using as many leg/arms to keep control.

     Ranma watched Unit 04 lower Unit 02 slowly into the pit, The hole wasn't very deep, he thought, Unit 02 could have jumped down, then he felt the effect of a gentle landing by the 700-ton war machine.

     "Schiesse, Wondergirl!" Unit 02 leaned close, "Are you all right?  Scratch that, stupid question."

     "Please hurry," Rei told her.

     All Ranma could do, was cover her with his shirt, and bandage her head with the cuffs off his pants.  She'd bled through that as he pressed down to try to stop the bleeding.  Unit 02 bent close, peering at Rei and the block of concrete she lay on.

     Ranma kept expecting a string of comments and insults, Asuka was worryingly quiet.

     "Horseface, is that surface flat.  I can't tell well enough."

     "No, it's pretty rough," he replied.

     "I mean from edge to center, does it generally curve up, or down, or not at all?" Asuka asked in a monotone.

     "Uh, up," Ranma looked at the rock.

     "Scheiss Teil!" [Damned thing!]

     That's sounds more like Asuka, Ranma thought.

     "Okay, can you get a grip on the upper and lower parts of that rod?  As close to Wondergirl as you can get without touching her.  Hold it steady."

     Ranma did as `ordered`, crowded close to Rei, slipping one hand under.  Rei gasped in pain at that.  "Sorry," Ranma was more careful getting a grip on the upper section, he held it steady, and saw the end of the rod, barely a centimeter over his hand, fall over to rest on something unseen.

     An AT field, Ranma realized, So she can manipulate them too.  All Ranma could manage to generate was a vertical wall directly in front of him.

     "Get ready," Asuka warned, then the concrete shifted slightly.  Rei whimpered, but otherwise didn't remark about being lifted into the air.

     Unit 04 took the raft of concrete, and passed it from hand to hand to the rescue teams, who had followed the two EVAs as they crawled through the corridors.

     Ranma held the rod steady as the crew cut through it, then they carefully loaded Rei onto a stretcher.  Ranma waited while Unit 04 pulled Unit 02 back out of the pit.  Ranma didn't know what he was supposed to do now.  They didn't need him in the EVA bays, which was where the two EVAs were heading, he couldn't do anything for Rei, he wandered back to the locker room.  Maybe the others will have an idea, he thought as he walked.

     Nabiki stood in her plugsuit beside Unit 02, she'd wanted to congratulate Asuka on her `victory`, and assumed Misato was also there for the same purpose.

     The tirade that followed was completely unexpected.

     "What did you think you were doing?" Misato demanded, "Launching without orders, and taking Shinji with you!  In case you hadn't noticed, he hasn't fully recovered yet.  That's why he isn't on the combat roster.  You're not in charge here.  You have no right to simply walk out with an EVA, WITHOUT COMMAND APPROVAL!!  You only had legitimate orders to go to the bays, not to launch!"

     "Yes ma'am," Asuka said quietly.

     "You may think that EVA is yours, but it isn't!  It belongs to NERV.  If we decide you aren't piloting it, on a mission, or ever!  You have no say in the matter!  Is that understood?  You don't EVER go out without direct command authorization!"

     "Understood clearly, Captain," Asuka said, "Which officers have such authorization?"

     "Don't get smart with me, young lady," Misato angrily retorted.

     Nabiki was expecting an explosion, then realized that Asuka was 'caught', Misato was her commanding officer, and therefore always right.  She'd seen Genma and Soun tear Ranma apart with the same nonsense.

     "Who told you to go crawling through the corridors with your EVAs?  Rescue's job is recovering the pilots.  If Unit 04 had slipped, you could have crushed them.  Do you understand the consequences of your actions?"

     "Yes, Captain," Asuka said stoically.

     Nabiki was boiling to speak out, they'd specifically told her of Gendo's orders, how did Asuka and Shinji get out there without those orders?  But to say that, or anything else, when Asuka was here, would only bring down more of Misato's wrath on Asuka.  Nabiki was willing to accept a dressing down, but she was uneasy about getting Asuka in further trouble, since she didn't deserve it.

     If she deserved it . . . Nabiki watched Asuka standing at attention, quietly agreeing to all the charges Misato brought down, never bringing up the question Nabiki was burning to ask: What else were we supposed to do?

     Misato finally wound down, "Dismissed," she ordered, not giving either girl a chance to retort or reply.

     Asuka marched off, back straight, eyes forward.

     Nabiki lingered a moment, to give Asuka some privacy.

     "Something to add, Pilot Tendo, I told you dismissed," Misato asked coldly.

     Yeah, should I beat the Hell out of you, or just hold your head under the L.C.L. until you drown?  "Not at this time."  I have to see to Asuka, Nabiki thought as she marched after Asuka, as soon as she was out of sight of Misato, she broke into a run, I'll settle you later, Captain.

     She was already forming a plan, she wished Ranma were available, she'd need help carrying it out, and she didn't have time to get Hiroko, although Hikari and Toji might be a good addition, that would also take more arranging, and she didn't know how much damage the earthquake had done to the city.

Service to Others

     Ranma had been waiting in the locker room for the better part of an hour, wondering what the deal was.  Asuka suddenly burst in, charged straight through, and into the showers.

     "Asuka?" Ranma called, then Nabiki came into the boys' side, also in her plugsuit.

     "Saotome," she said, he was instantly aware of how angry she was.

     He took her tone as a warning, not to draw that anger down on himself.

     "We'll be having one, maybe two guests.  Get the couch and the bunks ready, clean sheets and all."

     What am I, a maid? he knew actually saying that would be a serious mistake, "Should I cook dinner as well?"

     "Yes," Nabiki said, "Thank you."

     I was trying to be sarcastic, he thought, Did she ignore it, or just not notice?

     "Before you leave, check on our wounded: Rei, Shinji, Raccoon.  I have something to do."

     Ranma merely nodded, as angry as Nabiki was, he didn't want to set her off.  I wonder how badly things went out there, Ranma wondered, Those two are both acting weird.  Ranma left to follows his orders, "Anything else?"

     "Yeah, break the Captain's kneecaps," Nabiki headed to the showers.

     Nabiki walked into the showers.  Asuka was just standing there in her plugsuit, with the water playing over her.  Nabiki stepped into the next stall, turned on the water, "Asuka?"

     "What is this?" Asuka asked, "There are ten stalls, you and Wondergirl afraid to take a shower alone?"

     Nabiki considered, "You don't usually shower in your plugsuit."  She was pleased that Asuka looked down and frowned.  "I was just wondering," Nabiki said, "This was the first time I ever actually piloted.  I'd like to talk about it.  If you wouldn't mind eating dinner with us."

     "I have to check on Spineless," Asuka replied.

     "We can invite him along, let Dr. Akagi keep an eye on him," Nabiki replied, she considered adding that Misato could rattle around her empty apartment, but Asuka wouldn't agree to that, and from what Nabiki had heard from Shinji and Asuka, Misato would never notice.

     "Yeah," Asuka said, nodding

     "Maybe it's my inexperience," Nabiki began, "I thought that you did a good job.  A good plan, the fight and the rescue.  I resented being ordered around . . . but I realized you were right.  I might have collapsed the floor.  It seems to me you had everything under control."

     "No," Asuka said, "I should have gone to my EVA and awaited orders."

     "I never heard a peep on my command radio, except you and Shinji."

     "If I'd stayed in the bay, they would have established the link, or I would have gotten lawful orders, eventually."

     "You don't believe that any more than I do!" Nabiki retorted.

     "What I believe . . . , Tendo, I know Dr. Akagi can't give combat orders.  I knowingly ignored procedures.  What I believe, Tendo," Asuka angrily turned to Nabiki, "What I believe doesn't matter, what I know doesn't matter.  I am supposed to follow orders.  Never question, just follow orders!"

     Nuremberg is trying people for believing that, Nabiki thought as she removed her plugsuit, prompting Asuka to do the same.  Nabiki knew she hadn't had a chance to carry out her earlier plans, she'd been waiting for things to settle down.  Now she realized they never would, and to stand by and simply let things like this happen, was simply negligence on her part.

     Nabiki arrived back at the apartment with Asuka.  She smiled that Shinji was sitting at the dining room table, looking guilty, because Ranma was doing all the work in the kitchen.

     Typical of Ranma, Nabiki knew it would be simple fare, but there would be plenty of it, and Ranma's pride wouldn't let it be anything except delicious, Cooking may only be 'for girls', but Ranma won't be second best at anything.

     "Rei's still in surgery," Ranma told them when he heard the two girls taking off their shoes, "But Rit-chan was real hopeful."

     "So Ritsuko is going to be late," Nabiki reasoned, "Well that's more for the rest of us."

     "How are you feeling, Spineless?" Asuka asked.

     "Wobbly, but Maya gave me a clean bill of health to come here."

     Nabiki watched Asuka nod.

     "So what did you want to talk about?" Asuka asked, "You've got all the healthy pilots here."

     Nabiki was only too aware of the pair they were missing, and Shinji didn't look all that great either.  She kept coming back to the idea that pilots were hard to come by, she didn't know when Shinji had piloted, she'd still been in Nerima at the time, but it was less than a month and a half ago, probably less than a month.  The disregard for the pilots shocked and offended her.

     "I guess after everything that's happened the last few weeks, and that I piloted for the first time today.  I just wanted to get your opinions about piloting, and what's going on."

     Shinji shrugged, "You're not going to go crazy on us are you?" he smiled, "No ancient monsters and gods?" referring to Raccoon's tale as they prepared to fight Tulzscha.

     "Well," Nabiki began, "Actually my parents put me in a rocket to escape our dying homeworld and I was found by an old couple inside the reentry vehicle shaped like a giant peach."  Nabiki noted the frowns from both Asuka and Shinji.  "Actually, I want to know about piloting, I asked Raccoon just before you got hurt," Nabiki told them, "What he said didn't make any sense.  I thought maybe it's different for girls, or maybe it's different for everybody."

     Asuka nodded.

     Then Ranma put the first course, soup, on the table, "There's plenty," he told them as he returned to the kitchen to get the rest.

     Misato waited in her office, maintenance had already cleaned up the mess the earthquake had caused in here.  She had fielded a few of the phone calls of complaint that always seemed to follow every deployment of the EVAs.

     Government Ministers, elected officials, various pillars of the community, demanding explanations and someone's head, every time the EVAs appeared.  The action at the Harbor was a case in point.  She was reasonably certain Unit 04 hadn't actually landed on anything, or anyone, but there were complaints as if it had squashed the palace, destroyed two childrens' hospitals and half the businesses in town.

     We should have a separate compound, a fortress city, that would eliminate all the complaining, she thought, then laughed.  Then she got angry, Why can't Asuka and the others understand the responsibility of taking out the EVAs without authorization?!  They wouldn't suffer if something went wrong.  "NERV would, and as tactical commander, it would be my responsibility to deal with the complaints," she told the office furniture.

     She waited for the phone to ring, for the avalanche of charges and complaints to start, while she worked on the paperwork.  After work, she could deal with the problem, she worried as the pen scratched away on the mountains of forms that never seemed to go away.

     Ritsuko watched the surgeons wheeling Rei back into the observation room.  The surgeons had been busy all afternoon and evening, but Rei was their main priority.  The girl had been clever, leaving the rod that had punctured her lung, in place.  Once they removed it, the lung collapsed, and the doctors' work really began.

     Ritsuko walked after the bed with the girl in it.  The scorch marks on the walls, floor and ceiling marked where the fighting had ebbed and flowed.  From the pattern, she was sure they'd been after the pilots.  Except Shinji wasn't there, and there were two firehoses near Davis's room.  'We couldn't have asked for a better kill zone,' one Marine turned fire fighter had told her.  Except one spark would have been a disaster.  She also suspected that the earthquake, powerful as it was, would be localized to where the pilots were supposed to be.

     So it was an assassination attempt, she thought, By whose orders.  She wanted to interview the pilots after their sortie, although Misato assured her she'd spoken to them about the important topics.  She wondered about why the creatures' `master` didn't show up, the creatures themselves could have attempted a summoning.

     She walked back to her office, where she could go over the sync test data, "Or I could go home and talk with the pilots."

     She entered her office, "I wonder what they're doing, Rei was supposed to be cooking for Asuka and Shinji."

     "Are you stupid?" Asuka asked Nabiki angrily, "Linking with an EVA is never like that, Raccoon was fooling you."

     Shinji and Ranma supported Asuka's assertion.

     "I didn't say I believed it, I said he told me that.  My experience was more like yours.  Fighting to get and maintain control," Nabiki retorted, she wasn't happy about getting harangued by Asuka, and chuckled at by Shinji.

     "That's why I'm asking," Nabiki added.

     "You're as gullible as Horseface," Asuka said.

     Now that hurts, Nabiki thought, "What about the elevator?" Nabiki shot back.

     Asuka got very serious, "Oh, that was all true."

     Nabiki nearly missed the faint smirk, "Right!"

     Asuka let the smile go.  They had been all sitting with their legs under Maya's kotatsu.  Ranma had retreated to do the dishes, when someone ran their foot up his leg.  She and Asuka had accused Shinji, who immediately apologized, That almost made things worse, Nabiki treasured Ranma's stricken look as he retreated from that assumption.  All in all, this has been very successful, Nabiki thought, Asuka and Shinji were bouncing back, Ranma's behaving himself.

     "Look at the time," Shinji noted it was 11 P.M..

     "Relax," Nabiki assured them, "We have extra beds."  She wondered about Asuka's look when she said that.  "Shinji you can sleep in the upper bunk, Asuka you can sleep on either the futon or the couch."

     "Couch," Asuka said, "I've never understood how you sleep on the floor.  It just leeches the heat away."

     "Conduction versus convection," Nabiki remembered one of the simpler concepts from her dream.

     "That's right.  Who gets the bathroom first?" Asuka asked.

     "We have two, although they're in the same room.  You and I go first, then Shinji and Ranma.  I can lend you some pajamas."

     "Like in your pictures?" Asuka noted, then brightened, "Oh!  I get to see you in the morning!"

     "Ranma, if you hear screams in the bathroom.  It's just me drowning our guest," Nabiki replied, and followed Asuka into the bathroom.

Chapter 13 - The Rubicon's Dark Frontier

What has gone before:

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

     SEELE arranged for General Tembris, the Meliorist's nemesis, to arrive in the waking world.  Dreams after the concert send Asuka and Kaji, Gendo and Jeff to Nerima, sends Rei, and Nabiki and Maya into different points of Asuka's past.  Shinji battles whatever is doing this.  The ending of the dreams fills the targets with emotions of failure and loss.

     The pilots are defeated in their initial battle against the Angel Tulzscha, Shinji is wounded.  The second clash is a victory, leaving Shinji, Jeff and Rei injured.  The evening puts them in more odd dreams.  They are forced to cooperate to overcome the obstacles.

     The pilots react to the aftermath of the dreams.  Ranma discovers the Dream dojo is abandoned, Rei discovers Shinji's dreamscape is abandoned.  Rei decided to confront the Red Dragons to get some answers.

     Asuka begins designing new weapons for the EVAs.

     What Misato is doing at night is revealed.  Misato and Ritsuko go through Ranma's and Jeff's possessions, Nabiki looks through Jeff's photo album.

     Asuka is tasked to look after Shinji, Rei looks in on them and gets angry when Ranma interferes.

     Ranma discovers that Asuka and Nabiki exchanged dreams.

     Flame Vampires attack the NERV medcenter, Asuka and Shinji in their EVAs, destroy them, Nabiki launches for the first time in Unit 04 to support them.  Then Asuka in Unit 02 and Nabiki in Unit 04 rescue Ranma and a badly wounded Rei.  Misato castigates Asuka for unauthorized actions.  Nabiki invites her and Shinji to stay at Ritsuko's place.

     At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow?

     If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.

     As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, Jan, 27, 1838


     The baseballs slid down the pipes.  "Come on!  Faster, faster!" the man yelled at the teams in Dreamland's Trade speech.  The six teams moved faster, dropping the remaining five baseballs each through the pipes.  Then the teams grabbed the tubes, the tripods, the heavy iron plates beneath them, and jumped into the two trucks.

     The shouting man clicked off the stopwatch, when the trucks had moved 10 feet.

     He frowned, "Get back and do it again!"

     The men grumbled, and carefully set up the tripods, pipes and iron plates.

     "Ninety seconds, General," the man explained to Tembris.

     The General was looking over the warehouse they were in, then regarded his Waking World counterpart.

     "SEELE contacted me again," the little man whined, "They are getting impatient."

     "If they could do what they're proposing, they would have," the General counseled, "Patience.  What are the chances of getting the 107's, instead of the 81's?"

     "They're hard to get.  I'm having enough trouble getting the trucks.  The practice rounds are almost impossible.  People will ask questions."

     "Then you will answer them," Tembris explained, "You're being well paid, for what you do, they expect you to do it."

     The little man bobbed in terror, and scurried away.

     "General, no offense," the man with the stopwatch began, "Why do we need him?"

     "To charge in with swords drawn, would cost us too many troops.  Using the modern weapons, allows us to hit and run," the General smiled, "Besides, he makes an interesting scapegoat, while we escape."

     The man nodded.

     "More practice," Tembris ordered, "We need to strike and escape.  I don't assume our opposites are fools."

     The man nodded and returned to practice.

     Ranma wandered the streets, deep in thought.  What Rei had told him was bothering him.  That his body was Ranma, and nothing else, and that all of her wasn't in the pit.  He'd laid awake last night, in the upper bunk.  'Raccoon's bunk,' something kept reminding him, kept him from sleeping, while Shinji slept soundly in the bunk below.  He was trying to figure out what she meant.

     He understood the difference between Ki and Chi, but he was pretty sure that wasn't what she meant.  The two girls had gone out with Hiroko and Hikari.  Shinji and Toji had tagged along.  He hadn't seen any reason to go with them, and no one had disagreed.

     As he walked along, alone, he was beginning to realize what she meant.  Shinji was out fighting in the EVA, that's where part of her was, Maybe Asuka too.

     "But not Ranma," he said, "Ranko wasn't there."  She must have meant reflections in other people, he thought, My two roommates, one hates me, the other scares me, and I don't think about them very much.  Ranko does, he stopped and considered, Ranko has good friends among the pilots, Ranma doesn't.

     That was his fault, 'If it wasn't martial arts, it didn't matter,' that tended to include other people.  'Do you intent to practice martial arts in a cave?' the question had been for Ranko, but it equally applied to Ranma.

     I don't know, it never mattered, he admitted.  Rei put herself in danger for him, because it was her job, she looked after Shinji and Raccoon, because they were important to her.  Shinji charged to the rescue, because he had feelings for another pilot, but he was at dinner last night because Nabiki asked him, same for Asuka.  Ranma doubted they would put themselves out for Ranma, they would always help another pilot.  Their connection was what he was, not who he was.

     Who I am is a baka, an idiot, a . . . he thought, remembering the stream of anger and insults that he elicited from the others.

     The sound of a ball against a glove caught his attention.  In a park across the street, he saw Mirei and an old man playing catch.  She was still wobbly on her feet.  He wondered why that was.  He walked over, watched her practice her throw.

     Nothing wrong with her arm, he thought.

     "Hey Ranma!" she spotted him, "Whatcha doin' out here?"  She saw the glare from the old man, "I mean, Mr. Saotome, what are you doing here in the park?"

     The glare faded.

     "Watching you throw, you're pretty good."

     "I can't run yet, but I still want to get in shape for next school year," she threw the ball, he caught it easily, tossed it back, "You want to give old grandfather a break?" Mirei asked.

     Ranma spotted the other baseball gear, "Why don't I do some pitching, let you get in some batting practice."

     "We don't have enough fielders," the old man said.

     "Leave that to me," Ranma told them, as he selected a glove.  It felt good to be doing something, instead of thinking about things.

     "I don't see why you put up with it," Toji said, shifted the basket he was carrying, as they walked through the woods.

     "I don't mind cooking," Shinji admitted, "It's kind of fun."

     "Are you sure you can afford all this?" Hikari asked nervously, looking at all the food the pilots had bought.

     "Yeah," Asuka assured her friend, they were back on NERV property, looking for a nice place for a picnic, "I'm curious what those two picked while we were shopping."

     Toji and Shinji had bought lunch, while the girls were clothes shopping.

     "Should we give them a fashion show while we're having lunch?" Nabiki asked.

     "If you think I'm changing behind a bush, with those two staring at me . . . ," Asuka announced.

     "I'd be more worried they'd gobble down all the lunch, while we were changing," Hiroko added, "Or something icky crawling into my clothes, while I'm putting them on."

     The other girls shuddered at that.

     "Nothing as icky as Sour Kraut," Toji whispered to Shinji, who laughed.

     "This looks good," Asuka looked at the bowl-like depression in the top of a hillock, tall trees around the rim partially shaded it, she walked to the center, "It even has an old fire pit."  She glanced at the deep cut in the hill, "And a swimming hole."

     "Good, I can't wait to taste ole' Shinji's cookin'," Toji said.

     "Toji," Hikari said.

     "Okay, I'll help him," Toji told her.

     Hikari turned to the other girls, "Why is it you can't get them into a kitchen without a gun, but outside, they volunteer?"

     "They're boys," Asuka said, "Their actions defy logic."  The others agreed.

     Shinji hadn't intended to cook anything, but he was glad of Toji's help preparing lunch.

     "Asuka?" Misato called, as she left her room, "Shinji?"  Their beds hadn't been slept in.  She remembered Ritsuko saying something about Shinji going home.  Pen Pen wasn't begging for food, so they must have fed him.  She wandered into the kitchen, checked the refrigerator for leftovers.  There aren't any?  What happened?  She picked up the phone, determined to call Ritsuko.  There was no answer at Ritsuko's home or office.  Now she was getting worried.
     Maya walked along with her sempai, shopping for food seemed a very prosaic and completely enjoyable activity.  Both of them were concerned about the pilots, and their reactions to the shocks of the last few weeks, and the injuries suffered.  "Does it seem unusual that Ranma seems to bounce back from his injuries, and the others don't?"

     "Apart from Rei healing her broken bones in a week?" Ritsuko replied.

     Maya guessed from her tone, that sempai was just causing trouble, "But for her, it was gone overnight, instead of healing rapidly the entire time," Maya replied, "Could it be a result of his exposure?"  She knew Ritsuko didn't need to be reminded of exposure to what.

     "Or it could be his natural state," Ritsuko reminded her, "Rei said he 'dropped out of the sky.'"

     "You think whoever `dropped` him, adjusted him somehow?" Maya was shocked.

     "You know how poorly socialized he is.  Someone neglected to teach him how to react to the outside world."

     Like Ayanami, Maya didn't say, Rei's not treated the same, and I don't know why.  What concerns them about Rei?  Will all the pilots raise the same concerns eventually?  "Then it is safe for Rei to be interacting with the other pilots?" Maya asked, "As closely as she has been?"

     Ritsuko was lost in thought for several moments, as they walked along.  Maya let her think, many things Maya needed to talk about, and do, hinged on her answer.

     "I actually think it might be good for all of them," Ritsuko said.

     Good, Maya thought, "Then you don't object to them including Ayanami in these get togethers.  I overheard Nabiki saying something about these becoming regular occurrences, including all the pilots.  I'd be willing to help."

     Ritsuko sighed, "I must admit, I'm not comfortable with having her in my home."

     Maya nodded, she knew sempai would agree, but she would have to decide for herself.

     "However, I won't object."

     Maya nodded again, slowly let out the breath she had been holding.

     "Maybe they can get Ranma's grades up," Ritsuko joked.

     "And Asuka's and Shinji's," Maya added.

     "Asuka?" Ritsuko seemed surprised, "She was an A+ honor student throughout school."

     "She got a D on her last physics test," Maya supplied, she'd taken the message for Misato.

     "Misato must be thrilled about that," Ritsuko paused, "I am not looking forward to the conference with Ranma's teachers on Wednesday.  I can imagine how enjoyable working with Misato is going to be, after her meetings."

     Maya chuckled at that.

     The crack of the bat, Ranma sprinted after the ball, catching it easily.  Mirei was a good hitter, for a girl.  He was having a good time, just running down and catching a randomly `thrown` object, he could easily lose himself in simply acting.  The acting was automatic, Like a dog retrieving a ball, the thought disturbed him, and spoiled his mood.

     "You gettin' tired?" Mirei taunted, withered a bit under the old man's glare, "Hey, Mr. Saotome, are you too tired?"

     Ranma frowned, taunts were acceptable, if they were grammatically correct and properly phrased.  "A little," he answered, "I was just wondering what I was doing."

     "Playing baseball, I would think," Mirei told him irritatedly.

     "No, I understand that," words didn't come easily to Ranma, and even he wasn't sure what the real problem was.  He decided to start with what he understood, and work out from there.  "There's a pilot you haven't met.  Her name's Ranko and . . . " How do I explain her without mentioning the transformation? he wondered, then he noticed they weren't instantly teasing him about her being his girlfriend, it gave him confidence to go on, "Well, if I was a girl, that's who Ranko would be.  I mean we're a lot alike.  If I discovered I liked orange sherbert, Ranko would know she liked it too."  Ranma chuckled, "Since Raccoon has never seen us both at the same time, we've told him we're really one person, who changes genders."

     Mirei and the old man laughed at that.

     "Well, Raccoon's too smart to believe a word of it.  Everybody else thinks it's a good explanation, just to tease him."

     He paused, "I fought him on the ride over to Japan, beat him pretty easily," he noted their disapproving looks, "I'm not proud of it.  He said he could fight, and I wanted to spar.  He hates my guts now, but Ranko . . . "

     "Is she pretty?" Mirei asked with a blush.

     "Yeah.  Every guy in class drools over her, except me - and Raccoon."  He was curious about that.

     "He frightens her, does he?" the old man asked.

     "Yeah, some."

     "Pushes her around," Mirei glanced at the old man with a smirk, "For her own good."

     Ranma nodded, he had the feeling he was in a conversation he could only hear part of.

     "He cares about her, won't let anyone hurt her?" the old man continued.

     Ranma nodded, This is spooky, he thought.

     "You can't talk to your parents about this?" the old man asked.

     "I don't know my folks," Ranma told them.

     "Does he ever hug or kiss her?" Mirei asked, as she tottered towards him.

     "Yeah, he does, usually when she's mad or sad, or scared.  If anyone else even touched her when she was mad, she'd clobber them."

     "Like this?" she put her hands on his biceps, giving them a little squeeze, then put her hands on his shoulders, "Or like this?"

     "Always the last way," Ranma couldn't figure out which way this conversation was going, it felt like some he'd had around Nabiki, Raccoon or Asuka, they were practically scripted, except he didn't have a script, "Or around the shoulders, sometimes he messes up her hair."

     Mirei and the old man exchanged grins.

     "You feel jealous at their close relationship?" the old man asked, "They exclude you."

     "I wouldn't say I'm jealous, but yeah, they try to keep me out, I guess, I don't know.  She comes by later, and fills me in on what he taught her."

     "I had much the same reaction when my daughter - " the old man said.

     "My mother," Mirei interjected.

     "Yes, when she found a boy she wanted to marry.  The boy and I were rivals, instantly."

     "He was handsome, and dashing, and sooo dangerous, like you Saotome-san," Mirei said, including him in her favorite fantasy, "But not to her.  It was so romantic."

     Ranma was uncertain he liked the way the conversation was going, but he was glad HE was the one cast as Ranko's boyfriend.

     "You had a close relationship with this Ranko, practically brother and sister, or betrothed, before she met him.  Now she has feelings, you assume romantic feelings, for this boy, and you don't like it," the old man said, "But he's not acting like other boys.  He's acting like her father.  The first man a girl really loves, is her father.  He's powerful and mysterious, he makes her do things for her own good, and at the same time, he's the one she goes to, when she has to hide from the world."

     Ranma gulped, the explanation hit a little too close to the mark, "But they aren't related, we are."

     "She doesn't know her folks either?" Mirei asked.

     "No, no more than I do," Ranma admitted, "We've been together as long as either of us can remember."

     "Let her go," the old man advised, "She would fall for someone eventually.  He seems a decent enough man . . . but you don't want to," the old man spoke Ranma's protest.  "You're like her brother, you can't control her life, and she'll hate you if you try.  Take some advise from an old man, who had to let his daughters go to men, who weren't nearly good enough for them.  Make sure he's kind to her, and listens to her."

     "He told me he'd kill me, if I hurt her," Ranma admitted.  He could see Mirei thought it was romantic, she had that look.

     "Make sure he can provide for her, and make sure he's really a man.  Too many today, care for nothing but themselves, or their amusements.  The real men, are the ones begging for work to feed their families, the ones who put their lives and honor on the line for others, their families, their companies.  I've seen many who talked of honor, demanded honor they weren't worthy of, those are the most despicable and reprehensible of men.  They used honor to harm or bind others."

     Ranma gulped, it was practically a condemnation of him and his ways, "What if what you can do, is all you have?"

     "Then I feel very sorry for you, young man," the old man said, "If you aren't doing what you're doing for others, you might as well not exist."

     Ranma's fists clenched and unclenched nervously.  Rei had used different words, but said the same thing, Raccoon and Nabiki had accused him of something similar.  But he only felt 'honor' when he was doing something, and the only thing he was good at, was Martial Arts, so he had to be the best.

     "So if someone knows only one thing, and puts their entire life into being good at that one thing . . . ?" his guts told him he was being attacked, even though his mind knew he wasn't, these people were trying to give him good advice, advice he didn't want to hear.

     "If it serves the community, he will be praised.  Miyamoto Musashi was almost considered a bandit," the old man explained, "Until he wrote the Book of Five Rings."

     I bet Nabiki and Raccoon have read it too, Ranma thought, I bet I should have, and haven't.  Yet.

     "Many of his opponents, experts all, are only remembered because he fought them, at the time, it was assumed that they would be remembered, and he would be forgotten."

     "I can't write, not too well," Ranma admitted.

     Mirei took his hand and smiled at him, "Then do something, something like today," she caught the disapproving look from the old man, her grandfather, and released his hands with a smile.

     Ranma wondered if anyone had ever told her how cute she was when she smiled.  He could easily get lost in a smile like that.

     "You're jealous of `Raccoon`, because he's helping Ranko, and you can't," the old man started collecting the baseball equipment, Ranma moved to help him, "Don't try to stop him from helping her, try helping yourself.  You'll compete on the same field, and you'll feel you're really doing something."

     But what can I do? Ranma misinterpreted what the man was saying, Beat people up for charities? he remembered the discussion Ranko and Raccoon had about pictures, and the money going to charity, and the talk he'd had with Rit-chan, about people starving and sick in Tokyo, while NERV had food and medicine aplenty.  But it's too big a problem.  I can't solve it all, he lamented, It's like fighting those things, what I know, what I can do, isn't enough!

     Maya and Ritsuko managed to get all the bags of food inside.

     "The scary thing is," Ritsuko explained, "This is only two days worth.  I'm glad the kids are turning over most of their food and housing allowance, or they'd eat me out of house and home in a month."

     "It just shows they're healthy, growing kids," Maya replied, she was glad that some of the kids were getting decent treatment, from what she could figure out, Shinji and Asuka took care of Misato, rather than the other way around.  She wondered why the Commander had agreed to the arrangement.  Maybe because he needed someone to look after Captain Katsuragi, she thought about the improvements in sempai.  Despite the craziness of teenagers, she was doing and feeling better than Maya could ever remember seeing her.  She wasn't so sad and lonely anymore, and she was having to ask other people questions.  The gossip about her hadn't been so mean, no one called her the 'Ice-Bitch' or 'computer-spawn', behind her back anymore.  By having a weakness, she became more acceptable.  The married people who had kids could give advice, and the unmarried ones saw her adversity as a warning of things to come for them.

     Maya still worried about her sempai, how worried she still looked, when she considered the kids: hers, Misato's, even Rei.  She had that look now, "Should we go by the medical center, or ask Security where the kids are?"

     "No," Ritsuko shook her head as she considered what to prepare for dinner, and what to put away.  "If there was a change or a problem, they'd contact us," she replied, "Besides, it's not the kids I'm worried about.  Well, they're part of it.  The initial estimates guessed these creatures would show up every five weeks to two months.  That should have given us enough time to rest, retool, analyze the fight, and improve.  Also the weakest were supposed to manifest first, then we'd work up to the strongest."

     "I'd heard bit of that," Maya admitted, "I didn't know there was a plan written down somewhere."

     Ritsuko started at that, "Well, it's not as if we wrote down a plan.  But none of these assumptions are working out.  We've all been running, almost constantly, we get a day's rest here or there, but what we really need is a week, or two.  The ejection system still doesn't work properly, there's rough spots in having no training program.  Everett was supposed to handle that."

     "Nabiki-chan has been teaching," Maya noted.

     "She isn't official, she also isn't teaching them many of the other things he was supposed to, like communications protocols, knife work, and a long list of other things.  His replacement, Lieutenant Baker, isn't qualified to do much more than man a bridge console.  We've been depending on things going the way we expected, because we had more knowledge, we could use the Magi to predict all the effect of all the variables.  It hasn't worked out that way.  Our defeat of Tulzscha came down to one of the pilots knowing about materials, and Ranma wasn't in any of the scenarios.  The initial plans were for Rei, Shinji, Asuka, Jason the American to pilot, with Nabiki, Sharon and Jeff as backups.  They would dorm together on the base, and Everett would handle the military training.  Except Everett and Jason are dead, poor Sharon's in a mental institution, and Ranma's here.  They were to go to school half-days, to keep them in touch with other kids, but none of that worked out, and we haven't been given a chance to stop and catch our breath.  It's as if our enemies know they can push us until we break, and there's nothing we can do about it."

     "But we aren't going to break," Maya insisted, horrified by the air of defeat that had descended around her sempai, "I think that's why Nabiki wanted the picnic she planned.  A chance to unwind, to relax and have fun."

     Toji screamed all the way down, and even after he hit the water, so he came up sputtering, "This water's freezing!"

     Nabiki wasn't listening, she cracked her knuckles and advanced on Asuka.

     "He started it!" Asuka protested, as she tried to evade the other pilot.

     "Asuka," Hikari grabbed Asuka's hand, and headed for the drop off, "Only one way out."  Hikari and Asuka jumped off the 'cliff' into the water below.

     Asuka realized her skirt was billowing up, and Toji was below, "Don't look . . . " the word 'pervert' was drowned, literally.

     "Boss," Hiroko touched Nabiki's shoulder, "I don't think we'd," she bowed, caught Nabiki's knees, and stood with Nabiki over her shoulder.  "Cool off!" she jumped with her burden into the icy water below.

     "Are you out of your mind?!" Nabiki demanded when she surfaced, and got a faceful of icy water as a reply.  The splash fight became four way, as Toji retreated to the shore, it didn't keep him from getting any less wet, but he didn't want to be in the middle of the four fighting girls.  He looked up at Shinji, who was glancing at the girls, then at the medcenter in the distance.

     Toji wondered at the change in Ayanami, since the other pilots arrived.  He knew he'd changed, the nightmares about his sister dying, after she got hurt.  That he could understand.  But the other dreams, he wondered, if the pilots had strange dreams.  He'd seen pictures of the things the pilots fought, he knew he wasn't supposed to look at them, but if they were attacking the world, Japan, Tokyo.  He wanted to know what they were.  The dreams they gave him weren't scary, really, they were just weird.

     He didn't remember them, but Shinji and Rei admitted their dreams had been 'different' lately, and both of them blushed when they said it.  He'd never seen anything embarrass Ayanami before, or her be evasive.  It was one of the reasons everybody thought she was creepy, she just didn't get embarrassed or angry, no matter how cruel her schoolmates were to her.  If she'd been having those kind of dreams about Shinji, she would have said that, and not been embarrassed about it.  He really couldn't ask any of the others.  Kensuke dreamt of being an EVA pilot, Who couldn't guess that, Toji mused as he wrung the water out of his clothes.  Only to get an icy drenching again, a moment later.  I bet this doesn't happen to any of the pilots!

     He couldn't talk to the other pilots, they scared him too much.  Some of the other kids in class had some severe nightmares, but those kind of kids always had nightmares.  He couldn't imagine any of the pilots having that kind of problem, he wished he could talk to somebody who'd gone through it, somebody who would understand, and wouldn't laugh at him.

     The fight finally wound down, and all four girls climbed out of the water.  Toji tried not to stare at the way their clothes were clinging to their bodies.  He glanced at the class rep, she blushed as she realized how she looked.  Tendo took up a pose that made him and Hiroko blush.

     "What are you looking at?" Asuka demanded, accidentally taking a pose almost as risque as Tendo's, "You pervert."

     "Not you!" Toji stood, he saw her anger build, Oh, not smart, not smart.  That's how this all got started.

     "What's wrong with me?" Asuka demanded, "Or do you like boys?"

     "Since no one wants hot tea.  I'm throwing it out," Shinji called down to the shivering group.

     Good save, Toji thought, as he followed the girls up the slope.

     The class rep kept rearranging her wet clothes, and looking back at him, then blushing and looking away.

     "Pervert," Asuka grumbled.

     Toji fumed.

     "Yes," Nabiki agreed, "He should know the effect those pants would have on us girls when wet."

     Toji glanced down, and then desperately tried to put a little distance between his slacks and his skin.

     "I never knew you were so . . . mature," Hiroko said, and all four girls giggled.

     Toji blushed again, he'd never imagined girls would act like this, but they outnumbered him four to one, maybe they felt safe picking on him.


     Nabiki squelched wetly back into the apartment, Ritsuko was cooking something.  Ranma was sitting at the dining room table, his head down on one arm, with his other hand, he was idly rolling a baseball on the table.  If she didn't know him better, she would have called his expression contemplative.  Maya was standing next to one of the curio cabinets, watching everybody else.

     "Misato was angry that no one told her Shinji and Asuka were over here last night," Nabiki told them.  Nabiki remembered the look on Misato's face when she'd said, 'We were waiting for you to be sober,' then she'd looked at the beer cans on the table and asked, 'When will that be perchance?'  Then she'd left.

     It probably made things harder on Shinji and Asuka, but she couldn't figure out how such a person had ascended to that level of responsibility.  Actually she could, but neither Fuyutsuki nor Ikari seemed the kind to promote their mistress, and she didn't seem their type.

     "She told us," Ritsuko said, "She also suggested you need a lesson in discipline."

     Uh oh, Nabiki thought, I stepped in it again.

     "So, you're going to finish stirring this, and tell me everything, about your sortie, and the rescue, and what led up to you inviting Shinji and Asuka to spend the night," Ritsuko waited until Nabiki was stirring at the stove, then added, "And you will not leave anything out, I already talked to Ranma and Misato.  I can also talk to Asuka and Rei."

     Nabiki let out a sigh, and started her tale.  At least the heat from the stove drove the chill from her, and started drying her clothes.

     They were sitting quietly around the dining room table.  Nabiki noted that even Ranma was eating like a regular person.  Nabiki wondered who Ritsuko and Maya were angry with: Asuka for disobeying orders and taking Shinji out, Misato for tearing Asuka apart for what she'd done, her for antagonizing Misato, or some combination of two or all three.

     "Misato was correct, Asuka should have waited for orders," Ritsuko said calmly, "If she had, the medical center would have burned to the ground, Davis would have been killed, probably you too, and Rei would have died of her injuries.  Asuka may have done the right thing, and done it superbly, but for completely the wrong reasons."  Ritsuko paused to let Nabiki respond.

     Nabiki held her tongue, she'd expected Ritsuko to be reasonable about this, instead she was just parroting the company line.

     "Taking an EVA without command authorization, is a capital crime," Ritsuko continued, "Asuka is lucky the reprimand was verbal, and unofficial, and the records show the sortie had the Commander's authorization.  Misato was terrified, when she realized what Asuka had done.  If she'd done anything official, as discipline or [aknowledgement], Asuka would be liable for immediate trial, and if convicted, summary execution.  There is no other penalty for an unauthorized use of an EVA."

     "That hardly seems fair," this information utterly shocked Nabiki, she saw the shocked expression Ranma wore, "Do as we say or we'll kill you."

     "Nabiki-chan," Maya explained, "The only thing that can stop a rogue EVA, is an Angel, or another EVA, the safeguards have to be in place."

     "And why weren't we told about them?" Nabiki asked, "Or is the law a secret too?  It seems any time we take initiative, there's some adult, and I use the term advisedly, telling us we did wrong, and explaining the changing of the rules.  But never explaining the rules beforehand.  Misato never mentioned the law, or the penalties.  She just attacked Asuka for not showing her proper respect, I don't think that law or regulations had anything to do with the Captain's tantrum, it was about bypassing her.  She never once mentioned what Asuka should have done, only that she was wrong."

     Ritsuko considered, "That might be true, but the facts still remain."

     "The fact is, that somebody is always waiting to mallet us over the head, if we don't follow the rules, and nobody seems to want to tell us the rules, or they change them to suit themselves.  So we're always in the wrong, so some adult can feel special and important."  Nabiki was beginning to understand Ranma's fiance problem, Ukyo and Shampoo played by consistent rules, Akane didn't.  It explained why he tried to stay friends with them, they were a source of stability, even if they destabilized the rest of his world.  If they didn't, something else would have, like discovering he was burakumin, or his father had affianced him again, or their father had affianced one of his daughters.  Or he looked at somebody wrong, and they wanted revenge, or some creditor showed up to settle accounts with Genma.

     "Maybe I should talk to Rei about all of this.  At least she'd tell us," Nabiki said, "We can trust her.  Is she the only one?" she fixed Maya with a scowl, she caught the warning glance from Ritsuko to her assistant.

     "I'm sorry," she said apologetically, "I keep forgetting, we're just kids, not real people.  I'm going to go check on Rei," she got up and put on her shoes, before she left.

     The day had been going so well, she really should have known better.  With Ranma around, life naturally just got more complicated.

     Ranma looked at the two older women, spoke in a quiet voice, "I think she's angry that you haven't tried to treat her as an adult.  I think I can understand why, because we aren't adults.  But you adults haven't been acting like grownups either."  He sighed, wondered how much he should push this, "Maybe we all have to grow up, start really being worthy of who we say and think we are."

     He put his shoes on, and left to find Nabiki.

     "You okay, Nab-chan?" Ranma caught up with her.  Nabiki was glad of the company, she wondered if things would ever get better.

     "I'm just realizing that we're just trained animals, who're supposed to jump through hoops, never asking questions."

     "Come on, Nab-chan, it ain't like that."

     "Really?" Nabiki stared at him, "The other day, I found them going through your stuff, and Raccoon's.  They had lockpicks and prybars for Kami sake!  Why didn't they just ask?  And what's with the business of 'Asuka did the right thing for the wrong reasons?'  I'd bet money, that prohibition on the EVAs, doesn't apply to the pilots going into combat against our enemies.  Misato was pissed off that Asuka did a better job without her orders, than with them."

     "Well she is a military genius.  Everybody says so."

     "And you have proof?" Nabiki started walking, "Did she order you to shoot off that attack that destroyed the Tar Angel, did she come up with the plans to defeat the Green Fire Angel?  Her 'brilliant' idea to trap the crab-spider didn't work out so well, and she had you and Shinji so confused, you barely won.  In fact, you didn't, until Ritsuko cut you loose." She pointed at the medcenter, "Raccoon caught that Elephant Angel on his own, then killed it on his own.  He and Asuka killed the flatfish, with their plan, not hers.  So where's the genius?  I took over the school mafia, because I assembled the pilots, put them where I thought they'd do the most good, and let them do as they would, and it worked.  Does that make me a military genius?"

     "She came up with the plan to get us away from the things that killed Everett," Ranma said softly.

     Nabiki could see he was just trying to keep the facts straight, he wasn't correcting her.

     The flinch he gave when she turned to face him frightened and angered her, she stifled her frustration for a moment, said calmly, "Okay, that's one.  But if you had to take orders from someone on the senior staff, or one of the pilots, for a combat sortie, would it be Miss Captain Misato, or somebody else?"

     She watched Ranma consider, he didn't like taking orders from anyone, so it was a question of what he hated least.

     Then he got a strange expression on his face, "Does it have to be me, or can it be Ranko?"

     Nabiki stared at him, Where did that come from? she wondered.  "Your choice."

     "Okay," Ranma said, "As Ranko, Raccoon."

     "What's Ranko got to do with anything?"

     "I don't wanna talk about it," Ranma started walking towards the medcenter.

     Nabiki had to jog to keep up with him, "Come on Ranma, you can't say something like that, and just walk away."

     Ranma sighed, "While you were out shopping, I ran into Mirei and her grandfather."

     Nabiki strangled the jealous retort, she was already acting too much like Akane for her own piece of mind, "And," she said, concentrating on her curiosity.

     "They said Ranko's Raccoon's daughter."


     "That's how he acts.  Ranko's a daughter he's very proud of, Ranma's a son who's a disappointment."

     What he was saying shocked Nabiki, what it implied, and that Ranma of all people had been able to do the analysis.  She nearly ran into him, when he turned to face her.

     "Then I realized, you act the same way.  It's like I'm your kid or something.  I don't like it, you aren't any older that I am."

     "I . . . I'm sorry.  I just want what's best for you," she admitted.

     "How about some space to make mistakes, how about just accepting who I am?  How about you quit trying to be my mother, or my girlfriend, or whatever you think you are and - " he stopped, "I don't know who I am!  Do you have any idea how much that hurts?  You walked away from your home and family, because you chose to.  Asuka, and probably Rei too, grew up to be EVA pilots, for all I know, Raccoon did too.  NOT ME!  I don't know what I walked away from.  I don't know if I left, or was dragged away, or if there was nothing left to leave.  You just said Misato isn't as smart as everybody thinks she is.  Well there's a lot of that around here.  Rei said I don't exist, and you know what?" he stopped shouting long enough for her to shake her head, he started more quietly, "She isn't wrong.  You keep trying to make me 'better', all you're doing, is trying to eliminate the few handholds I've got on who I am, and I don't like it.  So Rit-chan and Misa-chan went through my stuff, I've got nothing to hide, only you do."

     He paused, centered himself, "I'm not a toy for you to play with," he wasn't shouting, he was explaining in a reasonable tone.

     It struck her that the decisive, indomitable Ranma Saotome that she'd seen so little of lately, that she'd wanted for herself so badly back in Nerima, first reappeared, telling her off.

     "I didn't want you to do something to embarrass yourself," she said.

     "And you walking around in a permanent snit isn't embarrassing?  Nab-chan, you have to let people be themselves.  You have to let me be me . . . please don't cry.  Aw jeez."

     "You have to let me be me too," she smiled, wiping at the tears.  She wasn't sure if she was sad, because someone else she cared about was dumping on her, happy, because Ranma had finally found the strength to stand up for himself, or both.  She realized she hadn't been the only one just marking time, waiting for something to happen.  Back home, something always happened to put the real issues on the back burner, so they were rarely addressed.  Here the action was sharper, over quicker, and there was quiet time to think.

     "Come on, stop," Ranma pleaded.

     She shook her head and sat on the curb, "Only if you agree to marry me."

     She watched him go through some mental contortions as he considered.

     Rei looks up from her book and through the oxygen tent, as Nabiki-kun and the Fourth enter.

     "How do you feel?" the Fourth asks.


     "Do you think you have enough books?" Nabiki-kun asks.

     "No, I've read those," Rei watches her examine the stack of books the staff have given her.

     "All of these?" Nabiki-kun seems to doubt her.


     "Today?" Nabiki-kun asks.

     "No."  She hadn't said she read them today, she'd said she'd read them.

     "Should we get you a copy of 'War and Peace'?" Nabiki-kun asks.

     She is tired, she didn't think just talking would be this tiring, "Which one?"  She doesn't understand their confusion.

     "The Bible?" the Fourth takes a book out of the stack on the side table, "I didn't know you were Christian."

     "I am not."  Why did he assume that reading a religion's book made you an adherent of that religion?

     "Jewish?" the Fourth is being inane again, she stares at him, wishing he'd go away.

     She sets her book aside, and tiredly lays back.  Merely speaking is difficult.

     "We'll see about getting you some more books," Nabiki-kun pushes the Fourth towards the door.

     "Thank you," she replies as consciousness fades to sleep.

Ranma's Travail

     Ranma lay awake and stared at the empty bunk above his head.  He wasn't an introspective type, at least, he didn't think he was.  That was the problem, he didn't know.  The fact he was even thinking about thinking about things, irritated him.  He wondered how much useless effort was wasted on wondering 'How do I be me?'

     He knew he was a guy, a martial artist . . . beyond that, was all speculation.  He still didn't know why he acted the way he did.  Why was he afraid of cats, why did he fight, verbally or physically, with everyone?  Why did he center his life around martial arts?  It would be `easier` to be Ranko most of the time, people cut `her` more slack than they did Ranma.  Raccoon especially treated them differently.  Ranma was the enemy because of the way he treated Ranko.  He made deals with Ranko, pushed her around a little . . . Ranma didn't know why `she` felt so weird around him.  The dreams of seduction and the training were part of it, that somewhere in Raccoon's head, were his answers, were another part, how he talked about Ranma's curse was yet another part, the most important part.

     Was Ranma a guy, who changed into a girl, OR was Ranma a girl, who changed into a guy, and was brainwashed into thinking she was a `he`, and felt contempt for `his` real form?  Being a girl was easy, most people thought `she` was a tomboy, but a charming one.  Some of the thoughts of the things he'd absorbed, told him gender was unimportant, for reproduction.  He suspected that was the source of the dreams.

     "But why a guy, not any of the girls?" he murmured.  Nabiki was interested, but he kept expecting her to belt him.  He wanted to avoid that.  Asuka . . . he'd rather date Rei, at least she'd shut up.  Misato and Ritsuko were ancient.  Shinji and Raccoon, he shuddered at that, he couldn't stand that Shinji ran away from everything.

     Ranko felt safe, no, not safe, Raccoon was trustworthy.  He did weird, terrifying stuff, because she needed to know and do those things, and Ranma always wanted to know to find the limits of what he could do.

     But he came back to the question of was he a he, or was he a she, or did it even matter?  The other girl pilots all made him uncomfortable, Shinji made him sick, but Ranko relaxed around her roommate, who should have been the one she was most frightened of.

     Ranma couldn't imagine talking or thinking about girls, the way the 'Three Stooges' did.  He also couldn't imagine mooning over a guy, or acting stupid around him, like Hikari and Asuka did . . . and Misato.  He almost didn't care.  He was vaguely interested in girls.  But guys?  He did NOT want to get pregnant, he couldn't imagine letting a guy do that to him/her.

     But how is that different from Asuka's reaction, to most of the guys in class? he thought, wondered if 'she' was reacting that way because `she` hadn't met `Mr. Right`, or because he really was a guy, and couldn't imagine surrendering his manhood that way.

     He rolled over disgustedly, all this was getting him nowhere.  He suspected he didn't think about things, because he was no good at it.  Everything he wanted to be good at, he was.  The things he wasn't good at, he didn't care about.

     Then why are you so good at being a girl? the thought froze him.  It implied he'd practiced, put real effort into doing the job well.

     He sat bolt upright, trying to come to grips with that idea.  It was horrifying, and reasonable, both at once.  The girl form had advantages and disadvantages, but that was hand-to-hand combat.  Not how to smile, how to laugh, how to touch a guy and just make him melt, not how to manipulate people by being charming and cute.  He could do it as Ranma, to some girls, Ranko could do it to nearly everybody, but the techniques were very different.  They didn't translate, so they'd have to have been practiced separately.

     That shook him to his core.  He knew how to do a lot of girly stuff: cooking, laundry, massage, and there were times after a hard workout when he wished Nabiki or Raccoon could work on his sore muscles, or if he saw one of the others in that kind of distress, he and she were drawn to do something.  Ranko helping Nabiki or Asuka, or Ranma helping Raccoon or Shinji, the motivation was the same.  It got messy when it was Ranko/Raccoon or Ranma/Nabiki.  Nabiki reacted differently to Ranma than Ranko, although she tried to hide it.  Raccoon wouldn't let anyone touch him, except for medical purposes, except Ranko.  Whose actions he accepted without comment or complaint.

     Ranma sighed, stared at the ceiling, trying to will a structure out of his chaotic thoughts.  He realized introspection just didn't work.  For everybody else, they thought about things, they got answers, even if the answers were wrong, at least they could stop thinking about things for a while.  For him, the answers never came.

     But he needed those answers, the things they fought added and took away a little of what he was, and he had so little of it to start with, one might sweep him away in a moment of weakness.

     The others knew who they were, their 'roots' went a lot deeper than his.  What had nearly taken him over while they moved Asuka's stuff, he'd have to be able to deal with it, if it happened again, when it happened again.  He also wanted to know better where he ended, and those thing started.

     He doubted Rei, Asuka or Raccoon had any doubts about themselves.  Shinji seemed to retreat from everything, even himself.  Nabiki, she twisted around so much, he doubted she could even find who she was, if she ever bothered to think about it.  He doubted Ritsuko cared either, she had science and her work, she wouldn't worry about who she was and where she was going.

     He disgustedly pulled the covers over his head, wishing he could just blot out the world, and get some sleep.

     Ranma watched Doctor Akagi exit the isolation lab through the 'diving suit tunnel'.  The thing you wore that stayed inside the lab, while you technically, remained outside.  He'd been specifically asked to come here, he didn't know why Asuka and Nabiki were here.  Shinji was looking in on Rei, elsewhere in the medical complex.

     "Pulse and blood pressure are down since an hour ago, temperature is up," Ritsuko spoke directly to him, "He won't last long at the current rate of decline."

     Ranma nodded, he still hadn't figured out how any of this applied to him.

     "He needs a transfusion, a large one, I hope your remarkable recovery ability is contained in some of your blood elements."

     Ranma nodded, "What do I have to do?"

     "Step this way," she led him into the isolab, he remembered this place, one of his first memories.  She put a tube in his arm, with the other end in Raccoon's.  They hooked up a unit of plasma to 'keep his volume correct,' whatever that meant.

     As Ranma watched, Raccoon's gray pallor faded.  Ranma felt a little dizzy as Dr. Akagi 'unhooked' him.

     "Easy Ranma," Dr. Akagi helped him sit up, "Dizzy?  Would you like to lie down again?"

     "No, I'm fine, Doc," he glanced over at Raccoon, "How's he?"

     "I don't expect - "

     "I feel," Raccoon interrupted Dr. Akagi, "Strange."

     Ritsuko looked over in shock at her patient, Ranma joined her as he saw the sheet covering Raccoon moving.

     It ballooned out impressively at the chest, widened at the hips.  The hair color changed to the familiar red.

     The now-buxom redhead, jumped off the table, and caught Ranma in a bone-crushing hug, "Oh Saotome-sama, you saved my life!  I'm yours!  Forget Nabiki and Asuka, I'm all the woman you'd ever need."

     Ranma's protest was cut off as Raccoon-ette crushed her lips down on his.  While Ranma was getting his tonsils cleaned, Raccoon-ette put one hand on his neck, forcing continuation of the kiss, her other hand moved Ranma's hand to her naked butt.

     That got Ranma to pull away, unfortunately only their tight embrace had been holding up the sheet Raccoon-ette had been wearing, and she wasn't wearing anything underneath.  The pose she took, and the smoldering look she gave Ranma, did nothing for his ability to concentrate.

     Ranma's eyes shot open.  He stared at the two closets in the wall.

     He was back in his room.  At least that worked! he had managed to pull himself out of that nightmare.

     "Ohh!" he heard as something soft and warm, two somethings, pressed into his shoulder blades, and a pair of hands encircled his waist.  Ranma recognized Raccoon-ette's voice.

     "You should have told me you were shy," the fingertips danced across his stomach, "And sooo manly," she purred, "Don't worry.  I can cook and clean and keep the house, run the business while you train," the hands started down, "All I want, is a few daughters along with the sons I'll give you."

     Ranma threw himself out of the bed, slamming into the wall between the closets, whirled to face the bed.  He could see clearly, despite the darkness.  Beyond the empty bed was a sea shore, immense cliffs on either side of a channel.  Ships passed through, in the darkness.  The figure standing at the cliff edge with his back to Ranma, caught his attention.

     "Troubles, Saotome?" Raccoon asked, "You need someone to guide you through this?  Some way to interpret and explain all this for you?"

     Ranma didn't want to ask the other boy for anything, but, "Yeah, it's all kinda weird, you know?"

     "You have no idea.  The truth is right in front of you," Raccoon hadn't bothered to turn around, "You trip over it, dust yourself off, and continue on.  Poor, confused, self-blinded child."

     Ranma seethed at that, at all the mind games and insults, "Then tell me something useful!"

     Raccoon turned towards him, he'd never seen Raccoon look that weary, "Since you asked, I will tell you something.  Would you like to know how to end all your worries, just let all your troubles drift away on the wind?"

     "Yes," Ranma chuckled, "That's exactly what I need."

     "'In strange eons, even Death may die.'  So to conquer everything, you only have to conquer Death," Raccoon explained.

     "Oh, that's real useful!" Ranma shouted as he stood, "There's just one little problem: HOW DO I CONQUER DEATH?!  Care to tell me that, Mr. 'I'm-so-smart-I-can't-stand-it'?"

     "You wound me, Saotome," Raccoon placed his hand on his heart, "That you would think I'd withhold the key that way."

     Ranma calmed down, stared at this latest tormentor.

     "To conquer Death," Raccoon stepped to the cliff edge, "You only have to die."

     Ranma raced towards him, as Raccoon jumped off the edge.  Ranma only managed to throw himself flat, and watch the smiling face descend, until the body smashed against the rocks hundreds of feet below.

     Ranma threw himself out of the bed, slamming into the wall between the closets, whirled to face the bed.  There was no one in the bed, there was no one else in the room, his room, nothing out of place.  Instead of the futon, that normally occupied the framework over his bed, only the framework now.

     This is reality, he realized, glanced around.  Ritsuko had made him put the futon away, that bothered him, surely if it was only a week . . . .

     "Ranma?" Nabiki opened the door.

     More proof this nightmare is my real life, he didn't want to think about the razzing she was going to give him about this latest dream, when, not if, she found out.  Better I simply tell her, rather than make her work for it.  He watched her grope forward in the darkness, he suddenly remembered that while he could see perfectly in the pitch-black room, she couldn't.  Just a little bit of my humanity gone, he thought, I wonder what else it's cost me.  He caught her hand before she groped him, he wasn't ready for that just yet.

     "I'm fine, just a weird dream," he saw Dr. Akagi enter.

     "Are you sure you're all right?  We heard that crash," Ritsuko told him.

     "I'm fine, don't turn on the light, I'd like to get back to bed.  Turn on that light, and it's morning," he replied.

     "Okay," she admitted.

     Ranma reluctantly told them the entire dream involving Raccoon-ette, he didn't mention the cliff side revelation, that one bothered him too much.  He noted that despite the darkness, Dr. Akagi stared right at him, he had to remind himself not to stare back, and let on how good his eyesight was.  And how good is your night vision, Doc?  Nab-chan is blind as a bat.  He was surprised Ritsuko reacted to the use of blood as a curative, he also didn't like Nabiki's scowl at the mention of `Raccoon-ette`'s actions.

     Amazing what people will show, when they don't think you're watching, he'd expected her to grin at his dream.

     "One dream you seduce him, as a girl, when he's a girl, he attacks you.  I'd say you've got some issues, Saotome," Nabiki told him.

     Ranma scowled, Ritsuko's mouth was a grim line.  Ranma forced himself not to rise to the bait.  Dreams, once you've confirmed it isn't a sending, are just concerns and worries left over, Ranma remembered from lessons.  He decided to hit Nabiki back, and see her reaction.  "I'm just worried about my teammate."

     He watched her flush with anger and embarrassment, clenching and unclenching her fists.  I never said she wasn't, he wondered about her reaction.  "Well, I'm going to do a few practices, then get back to bed."  He slipped between them, and headed up to the roof.  Neither followed him.

     Dozens of red eyes stared into deep yellow eyes.

     'Release me,' whispered through the darkened chamber.

     "What is the Riddle of Yd'he?" a voice rasped in reply.

     Many of the red eyes blinked, then sardonic laughter filled the chamber.

     "You've been very helpful," the voice rasped again.

     The laughter instantly stopped, and the red eyes bored into the now-empty darkness.

     He leapt into the dark skies, I should not be here, the Dragon thought, looking at the night skies of Tokyo.  He had a mission to complete while he was here.  He looked towards the NERV Headquarters, and the medical center.  There was his first stop, he wound the spells around him, that would alter and disguise his form.

     Landing atop the medcenter in human form, he entered.  He would check on the wounded, before he would investigate further.

     Once Ranma was on the roof, he slid down the drainpipe to the ground, and ran the three miles to the NERV medical wing.  He didn't want to get there all tired and panting, so he didn't run full out.

     Fifteen minutes later, he walked into the medical building, he slipped unseen past the night staff.  First, he checked on Rei, who was reading again, a bottle of clear liquid going through a tube into her arm.  Despite the oxygen tent, Ranma had nothing to worry about here, he knocked and entered.

     "After the concert," the Fourth said after he walked in, "I dreamed I was Raccoon, Nabiki and Asuka switched, who did you dream you were?"

     Rei considered, did she want to share that with the Fourth, how would he hurt her with the information, how would he hurt the Second?  Not answering a question wasn't lying, she merely stared at the Fourth.

     "I just want to know that, if Nabiki and Asuka exchanged, and I dreamed I was Raccoon, then if you and Shinji exchanged, it would mean that Raccoon knows some of my history."

     Rei reconsidered, she knew what the loss of personal history was like, but she wouldn't risk this was a clever trick, "I saw my history, through another's eyes," she told him, "And the repercussions."

     "But was that person Asuka?" the Fourth pressed.

     Rei considered the risks, "She was a knight, perhaps 25-30 years old."

     The Fourth looked disappointed, she could understand his quest, but that was different from wanting to expose the Second to the machinations of the Fourth, she simply didn't trust him, she also wasn't sure she wanted the Second to know of the insights she'd gained into her.  She had heard of the incident, and was displeased with the outcome.  The Meliorist was an exceptional asset to the Commander, if they had to take Asuka Soryu Langley along with, the scales were still overwhelmingly balanced in the Commander's favor.

     He proceeded on, he couldn't stay long, or Dr. Akagi would come looking.

     Ranma saw an old doctor in a lab coat, checking on Raccoon.

     "You shouldn't be here," the old doctor told him, then smiled, "But I was a soldier too.  Look, I'll be back in 15 minutes, if you aren't here when I get back, you were never here, agreed?"

     Ranma nodded, "Yeah, okay."  Ranma didn't expect this to take more than a few minutes.  The old doctor left quickly, quietly closing the door after him.

     Raccoon was also in an oxygen tent.  Ranma watched the boy's chest barely rise or fall, his dream image had been frighteningly accurate, the gray pallor and the faint breathing.  Ranma sat on the edge of the bed.  On his run over, he'd realized the dream was about his concern, a debt he'd acquired, and had to acknowledge.  He had giri, honor demanded repayment.  Even if Raccoon thought the idea stupid, it was the source and substance of Ranma's life and drive, he wouldn't ignore it, he couldn't.

     "I'm . . . sorry.  I should have paid more attention to Ayanami, I shouldn't have made you do my job.  If you . . . " he paused, he didn't like making promises he couldn't keep, he had an unreasoning hatred of it that he didn't fully understand, "I understand that Asuka dreamed Nabiki's past, and Nabiki dreamt hers.  Since I dreamt yours . . . I have to know.  Know what my father and mother are like, any brothers or sisters, any of my family.  You don't know what it's like, not knowing, not knowing any of it," he said, took a deep breath, "Anything you want, I'll kiss you in front of the class, anything . . . within reason."  He wasn't really expecting an answer, but he'd made the promise in front of the recipient, and he'd keep his word, that's what he needed, that's all he needed.

     He started to leave, "If you breathe from your center, instead of your chest, you'll be healthier."  He hadn't expected a reaction to that either, and wasn't surprised when he didn't get one.

     The Dragon returned to the roof, he had no intention of remaining or returning, he needed to find a place where he would not be seen during daylight.

     He knew Ranma would be gone if he returned, when the Iron Horse gave his word, he kept it.

     The Dragon smirked at the most obvious possibility, after all, the eating would be good around Ayanami's place.  The Cthonians hadn't learned to leave the girl alone, and since she wasn't there, they'd be looking, and careless.  The Dragon smacked his human lips, "Yes, very good eating."

Plans for the Future

     Another Literature class, and day in the Japanese school system ended.  Asuka smirked, if the teacher had wanted to give her a better present, another whole class day to complete her special project was an ideal one.  Today had been about Nietzsche, she could quote Nietzsche in her sleep, she had heard enough of it from Party members and her fellow University students, although, they didn't understand him. Maybe he'd faced the mythos, she thought, It sure read like he had.

     Asuka looked down at her handiwork, and admitted the elegant simplicity of it.  Since the only weapon they had was the prog knife, they needed something to give them some reach.  She had to admit, her knowledge of materials was lacking, so she went to the most obvious, simple solution.  The 16" gun tube of the new Iowa-class battleships.  They had to have made more that just the 36 for the four battleships.  Since it was a 16" 50 caliber, that gave her a tube a little over 20 meters long, designed to take tremendous stresses: throwing well over a metric ton almost 40 kilometers.  While it was only half the height of an EVA, it was better than nothing, and the interior bore gave plenty of space for the power cord and other control lines.

     She considered the reaction Misato and the NERV command would have to her proposal.  She angrily realized, that they'd pat her on the head, and put the design in a file cabinet somewhere.  If they don't just throw it out, she thought angrily.  Then she considered the possibility of bypassing NERV completely, after all, it was the U.S. Navy's gun tube that would have to be used, it was the Americans who would have to build it.  Why should NERV have any say in the development, Asuka thought, I can work with Navy engineers, all NERV will have to do is accept or reject the finished product.

     She remembered Doctor Schikelgrubber, and his admonishment not to turn her back on engineering, "Well, `old man`," she said quietly, "I guess I didn't."

     Asuka carefully put the designs, all her calculations, and the drawings, in a folder in her book bag, as she prepared to leave the classroom.  She smiled as she considered what she'd tell Captain Ramsey, when she went to see him.

     "I'm sorry, Miss Langley," Captain Ramsey told her, "It won't work.  Not that it isn't an innovative design, and a good use of existing equipment, we will keep the idea on file as a stop gap for emergencies."

     "Thank you," Asuka said without enthusiasm.

     "Please, Miss Langley, wouldn't a tube three times that length be a better choice, however, with your input, we know how to manufacture it."

     "A longer tube wouldn't be able to handle the stresses," Asuka said, "My calculations prove that.  Tripling the length means you have to have nine times the cross-sectional strength, at twenty meters you're at your limit."

     "That's true, if you limit yourself to the materials you know about."  He smiled, "I assure you, Krupp wasn't the only company in the world making new materials.  Kaiser aluminum has a product that is stronger than many steels, and a lot lighter.  Getting the cross-sectional strength probably wouldn't require much more than halving the central bore.  I can bump this up to the Admiral, and General MacArthur, they'll take it to the Joint Chiefs and Truman.  I'll keep you informed as to the progress."

     "Thank you," Asuka smiled, she hoped they'd hurry.

     "Have you decided on a name for this new weapon?  Progressive spear?"

     "It isn't really a spear, more like a glaive, and the progressive knife, what does it progress?  It just uses sonic frequencies."

     "Sonic Glaive then?" Ramsey asked.  Asuka nodded.  "Well, if you get any more good ideas, don't hesitate to bring them in."  He paused, "On another note, have you given any thought to joining the military when you're old enough.  A stint in the Navy or Army will certainly help you get your citizenship quicker."

     "Captain, I know you're doing your job, and that you believe that everyone wants to be an American . . . but I'm German.  I can remember a time when that was something to be proud of, if I have my way, it will be again.  Frankly, I think my homeland needs me more than your's does, it brought me to this point when it was strong, I can hardly turn my back when it's been laid low.  I hope you don't hold that against me."

     "As long as you don't hold it against me if I ask occasionally.  Frankly, I believe you can help your country as much from American soil as you could from Deutschland."

     "Well, I can't join until I'm 16, and I won't join until this war is over," Asuka told him, "So I don't have to decide anything, just yet.  Thank you."

     "I want to win this war as much as you do, well, almost as much."  He smiled, Asuka returned it.

     Asuka left the Navy HQ with a spring in her step, she hadn't felt this good in a month.

     Ritsuko wasn't looking forward to this.  Maya had, predictably, thought her fear was hilarious.  Lt. Thompson had given her a pep talk, that sounded more like what they would have told the troops storming Normandy Beach.

     She caught sight of Misato leaving the school principal's office, Of course she's dressed to stop traffic, she thought as she examined her own more sophisticated and understated outfit, more appropriate for a woman of her station and responsibilities.  From Misato's expression, her outfit had no effect on the principal or the teachers.  Ritsuko actually felt sorry for Asuka and Shinji tonight.

     She entered, the two men looked up, looking a little shell-shocked.  Evidently, Misato had a considerable effect.  She just didn't get what she wanted, Ritsuko thought.

     "Ah, Mrs. Akagi."

     "Doctor Akagi," she said politely, as she took her seat.

     "Ah, yes, Doctor Akagi," the man said, the principal from the way the other man deferred to him.  "Frankly we are very concerned about your wards, all three of them."

     Uh, oh, she thought, she'd expected to have to defend Ranma, not all three.

     "Saotome Ranko has a very poor attendance record," the principal told her.

     "Her duties to NERV preclude regular attendance," she said firmly, "As do all the pilots."  Isn't that obvious? she wondered, as the two men exchanged confused looks.

     "Well, as regards to grades.  Mr. Demitsu has adequate grades," the principal told her.

     "Davis," Ritsuko corrected, she'd recognized the other man, he was the school's English teacher.  Ritsuko felt a distinct 'down elevator' feeling in her stomach.  English was possibly Ranma's worst subject.

     This meeting wasn't going as badly as she feared, it was going far worse.

     "Mr. Demitsu . . . his attendance lately has been poor, to say the least."

     "He's been at NERV," she told them.

     "Well, we still expect him to turn in his homework."

     He's in a coma, Ritsuko thought, Come to think of it, he could still do the homework, if he could write.

     "He is unavailable," she told them.

     "Ahem, you must understand, an education is very important.  Attitude is very important."

     "Maybe that's why he was at Harvard, when he was nine."

     The two men exchanged more looks and whispers.

     "Yes, our concern for Saotome Ranma's grades and attendance are manifold."

     That one, Ritsuko had an answer for.  Not an answer for these men, but an answer for the one depending on her.

     Misato had changed into comfortable clothes, before she confronted her two charges.  Shinji's grades were barely acceptable, their major concern was his attitude, he didn't speak up in class or volunteer to answer, unless specifically called on.

     Well, that will take more work to fix, she thought.

     Asuka was her real concern, she was barely scraping by, that was a serious disappointment, "How could you get a D on a physics test?" Misato demanded, "It should have been easy for you."

     "I can't read Kanji, all the tests are in Kanji, so I had to guess what the questions were," Asuka said quietly.

     "What about this one," Misato indicated one of the questions on the test, "It's all numbers, and you still got it wrong!" Misato told her.

     "The answer I got was correct, the teacher's answer is incorrect."

     "How do you figure that?  You didn't even use the formula they taught in class."

     Asuka sighed, "I did the triple integral, the formula is not a good approximation.  It doesn't apply to the vast majority of cases.  My answer's right, the teacher was wrong."

     "He is your teacher, you were supposed answer the question he asked, not the one you think you should answer."

     Asuka stood up, "Very well, Captain.  I'll await your punishment.  After all, it isn't as if I had a college degree in Physics.  I guess a Japanese Middle School teacher knows more about physics than I do."  She stormed into her room, slamming the door behind her.

     Misato got up and tugged on the door, "Asuka!  Unlock this door immediately!"

     "Japanese doors don't lock!" Asuka replied, "Why don't you just consider it house arrest."

     Shinji watched Misato and Asuka scream at each other through the door.  He wondered if he could slip away unnoticed, he didn't necessarily want to go see Rei, but he wanted to avoid Misato and Asuka in a battle.  He still hadn't figured out why Asuka, Nabiki and Raccoon were in Middle School.  Nabiki and Raccoon had graduated from High School, Asuka from college, even he was beyond where most of his classmates were scholastically.      Frankly, except for being with his friends, school bored him.  Because of his status as a pilot, he couldn't join the band, the only thing that really interested him, and he didn't want to join any after-school clubs, because the only music-oriented clubs were jazz or traditional music, neither interested him.

     Unfortunately, Misato got frustrated with the one-sided argument with Asuka, and returned to the table.

     "What do you have to say for yourself?" Misato asked.

     School is incredibly boring, Shinji thought, he only shook his head, he knew better than to argue.  If he hadn't known, Misato's argument with Asuka would have taught him.

     "I expect you to buckle down, and spend more time studying," she told him.

     Between cooking, cleaning and doing all the sync and harmonics tests, Shinji thought as he nodded, I guess I can do without sleep. "Yes, Misato-san."  If I get killed in battle tomorrow, my grades will be so very important, he didn't say, he just kept nodding.

     Ritsuko had never expected to encounter a problem like this.  She had a doctorate in Polymath, she could do the most difficult matrices and integrals in her head.  This shouldn't be happening, she lamented.

     "It doesn't make any sense!  You told me to divide the last one first, why shouldn't I do that first on this problem?" Ranma asked.

     "Because all the terms in that problem, were divisible by three, so it simplified the problem.  This one, you need to collect the terms first, before you divide."

     "That doesn't make any sense," Ranma said in a bewildered tone.

     Ritsuko couldn't even figure out what was confusing Ranma.  Nabiki had given up, she couldn't help either of them, so she stayed out of it.

     "The point is to get all the variables on one side and the constants on the other."

     "That isn't what you said about this one, you made me put the 'x' on one side, and the 'y' on the other, but both are variables," Ranma told her.

     He's not being insolent, Ritsuko thought, He really doesn't understand.  She sighed, something else was bothering her, something missing.  "Whose turn is it to cook dinner?" she asked.

     "Raccoon's" Ranma said miserably.

     Ritsuko stopped, as reality descended on them all.  For two hours, as frustrating as it had been, they had managed to shut out the war, the real reason they were here together.

     "Ah," she said intelligently, "Do you want to go out to eat?" Ritsuko asked, neither of her charges seemed anxious.  She put her hands on Ranma's shoulders, "You aren't dumb because you can't understand this.  I can't understand what you do with Martial Arts.  But I think you need to learn and understand this, at least at this level, even if you never go any further."

     Ranma looked at her and smiled.  She was amazed that she'd guessed right about what was depressing him.  She wasn't the best mother she could be, mostly because like Ranma and math, she didn't even understand what she was confused about.

     "Why don't I cook," Ranma said, "Give me a break from this, and I thought English was hard."

     Ritsuko let him go, she sat back tiredly, glanced at Nabiki.  The two exchanged a look of 'What are we going to do?'  English had been a problem, despite both of them being fluent, Geography had been a disaster, Literature was best forgotten.  It wasn't that Ranma was stupid, the questions he asked were proof the opposite was true.  It's just nothing 'clicked', and neither she nor Nabiki had been able to discover a way of presenting the data, in a way that Ranma would absorb and understand.  Ranma seemed eager, no, determined to get his grades up.  She'd expected that would be the major battle, but he'd agreed and several hours later they had made practically no progress, despite everyone working hard to the opposite end.

     "Are you as frustrated as I am?" Ritsuko asked Nabiki, who nodded, "What are we doing wrong?"

     "If I knew," Nabiki put her head down on the table, "I'd be fixing it."

     What worried Ritsuko, was the school's attitude towards Nabiki.  During the conference, her name had never come up.  Already on the defensive, on three other fronts, Ritsuko realized she'd just let that slide.  Now she was remembering Ranma's comment following Nabiki's outburst,'Maybe we all have to grow up, start really being worthy of who we say and think we are.'

     Like it or not, she should have delved in to that, asked about Nabiki's progress.  Somehow that they said nothing should have worried her more than the complaints about Ranko, Ranma and Jeff.  She quietly remembered Lt. Thompson had told her that parenting was no differnet from combat at the squad level, a lot of confusion, mixed signals from above, and problems came up in all shapes and sizes, and worst of all, no matter how well or badly you think you did, you usually wouldn't know if you won or lost, until it was too late to fix anything.  She glanced over at Maya who was studying the notes Ranma had written down, trying to make sense out of chaos.  From her frown, Ritsuko didn't think she was succeeding.  On a lighter note, she could use the excuse of a harmonics test tomorrow, to avoid doing too much of this.  Now who's acting like a child? she thought, Dodging `homework`.

`Treacheries` of a Dragon

     The Dragon had taken the form and seeming of the boy, to complete this mission.  He disliked the manipulation the Children had suffered.  He would deal with the problem.  Whether they wanted his action or not.  He carefully poured the molten metal, into the design he'd carved into the wooden underfloor of Captain Katsuragi's kitchen.  The metal snaked its way through the pattern, silvery traces in the dark wood.  When the `snake` bit its own tail, the metal froze solid.  He placed the rune-covered piece of veneer over the design, and rolled the linoleum back, gluing it in place as he did.

     He congratulated himself, the boy had almost managed to complete the same operation in Akagi-sensei's apartment, in three weeks, Well, with Tendo and the good Doctor always looking over his shoulder, he'd been forced to do the job piecemeal.  I'm just glad they were otherwise occupied, so I could finish it.  Here, in less than four hours, he'd covered all the bedrooms, the bathroom, living/dining room and the kitchen.  He put the pot of metal back on the stove and shut off the heat under it.  He lifted the lid on the other pan that occupied the stove.  The smell of grilling peppers, onions and sausage filled the air, covering the faint tang of burnt wood and fresh glue.

     Pen Pen had been watching the entire operation, and the Dragon strongly suspected the bird was far smarter than the standard breed, How do I deal with you?  The little creature had seemed shocked that `Jeff` had walked into the apartment.  A few sardines had bought the bird's silence over pulling up the floor, misdirection would have to suffice to keep it from revealing what he'd done.

     The Dragon opened the oven, the tortillas were nearly ready.  He shut off the oven.  He knew the boy resented not being included in the extensive testing the `regular` pilots had to undergo.  "Makes sense," the Dragon murmured, "An alternate should have to receive the same or greater training, since by definition, he," he laughed, "Or she, would have to step in when the situation was already far from optimal."  As had already happened, but the test would keep the others away long enough for him to finish.  He just hoped Tendo didn't wander in on him.

     The egg mixture went into the pan next.  "You can't have any," the Dragon told the penguin, it was cruel, but the Dragon didn't care, he had a job to do.  The food, "Despite its uniformly excellent quality," was merely cover for his real purpose.

     The mixture of eggs, peppers, onions, fish and meat sausage, cheeses, tomatoes, and seasonings was scooped into the tortillas, then he rolled and placed them in the oven.  He laid a cantrip on the metal tray, to finish cooking the food, and keep it warm, for when the pilots and Captain Katsuragi arrived back.  He turned around and saw the penguin practically crying as he held the now empty bowl.  "Well I wanted a distraction.  Sit!"

     The penguin backed up, and waited patiently, expectantly.  The Dragon added two unused fish sausages to the other ingredients, and carefully set the cooking bowl down on top of the sigil he'd carved in the underfloor, right in front of the oven.  The Dragon stepped out of the way, "Okay, enjoy."  The penguin charged the bowl.

     The Dragon wrote a brief note to Shinji, before letting himself, and only himself, out.  "That bird is going to be a nuisance.  Well, he's the boy's problem, not mine," he smiled a human smile, he sighed, "The boy would insist I give the Little One's apartment the same treatment.  Him and his damn sense of fairness.  How am I going to manage that?"  With the strange girl's senses about such things, she'd probably detect his tampering, and might know exactly what he was doing.  Can't have that, he thought, Not yet anyway.

     Shinji entered the apartment tiredly, the intoxicating smell, and Pen Pen's frantic squawking, roused him immediately.

     Asuka followed him, looking as worn as he was, she brightened, "What's that?"  She helped Shinji shoo Pen Pen away from the oven, and pulled out the tray, they looked like giant egg rolls.

     "I don't have to cook," Shinji said.

     Misato entered, "That was fast.  Shinji-kun, there's a note for you on the table."

     Asuka grabbed the paper from Misato.  "'Shinji, sorry you weren't here.  Was the assignment page 437 para 8 to 16, which makes no sense, or page 473 para 6 to 18, which also makes no sense?  Don't tell Langley, I think she's GOT A THING FOR THE TEACHER!'  What kind of an idiot does he take me for?!"

     "Who?" Shinji asked, there was only one 'he' who could have done this.  He probably put that line in, because she's always snooping, Shinji thought, because saying it aloud wouldn't be worth the fight.

     "Horseface!  Who else?!" she shouted back at him.

     "Well, you can punish him by not eating his cooking," Shinji suggested.

     Asuka grabbed one of the egg rolls and bit into it, "Hot, hot hot." She rushed to get something to cool her mouth.

     Shinji smiled, set the tray on the table, then thought, It was still hot, and the oven wasn't on, how long ago did he leave?  When did he start calling her Langley?

     The Dragon walked along the river, still in the boy's form, it was disconcerting, but less risky than flying.  He'd use other spells to make his final approach.

     He'd felt the presence for several minutes, so he'd walked into one of the more deserted areas.  He wanted no witnesses.  "You've been following me, why?" he didn't turn around.

     Rei said nothing.

     "Don't play games with me, Little One." Now he turned to confront the blue-haired albino, "We both know you are playing to your own agenda, by your own rules."

     Rei stepped out of the shadows, "So are you."

     "I have my reasons.  And I don't answer to you, Little One.  Who do you serve?  Care to answer that?  Or do you even know?" the Dragon smiled at her fear.

     "Better than you," she managed, "YOU shouldn't be here."

     The Dragon laughed, "Is that a fact?  Then why don't you tell me?  Oh, sworn to secrecy about it, I've heard that before.  And I go where I wish, when I wish.  Not even your masters can resist me!"

     "You are here.  Why?"


     "He's centerfield," Rei replied.

     "Very well, Little One," he stepped towards her, she fearfully stepped back, "I should play a little game with you, for five of your questions I will tell the complete and unexpurgated truth, and for five of mine, you will do the same.  Agreed?"

     Rei turned and ran back into the shadows.

     "I'll take that as a `no`, the offer still stands."  The Dragon laughed, but inwardly he was seething, he'd not expected her to be able to track him.  But she had, and brought her masters, her real masters, with her.  He considered simply destroying them, But the boy wouldn't approve, oh no, let them live.  To be of use in his plans later, the Dragon shivered at that, there were times the boy petrified him.

     Nabiki watched Rei depart, and what looked like Jeff continue along his path.  Incongruous, wearing his three-piece suit and fedora in the warehouse district.  She knew it was impossible, he was in a coma in the medcenter, and Rei couldn't even talk for 10 minutes, without needing a nap.  Whatever that was, couldn't possibly be what it appeared to be.  She wondered who she could possibly report this too, someone who wouldn't consider her insane for seeing it.  Maybe Captain Ramsey or Admiral Simson, she thought, If they don't believe me, they'll probably think I'm 'just' overwrought.

     She'd watched `Rei` tailing `Jeff`, with a skill that nearly matched her own.  She'd nearly panicked when he'd called out, but Rei had moved up, and Nabiki had watched, and tried to listen.  From their body language, they were confronting each other.  From the changes in their stances, she also suspected that both had hidden depths, and knew the other did too.  There was something eerie, almost inhuman, in the way they stood and spoke, as if humanity were just a cheat, a disguise they wore, to keep from scaring the locals.  Despite the surface politeness, it had been a battle, one Rei had retreated from in terror.  Rei isn't afraid of anything! Nabiki thought, And she can kill those weird things, so what was that thing?  It looked and acted just like Jeff, when he was angry, is it that good a shapechanger?

     She suspected a battle between those two would be no mere fist fight, and would be without quarter and to the death.  She wouldn't have wanted to confront either one alone.  Even with Ranma backing her, she wouldn't ever try taking both.  Maybe not even in an EVA.  Rei was now making a beeline for her apartment, running at inhuman speed to get there.  `Jeff` was headed for the Naval base at a walking pace, that was a more interesting chase, and it was where she needed to go anyway.

     General Tomlinson blinked as he heard the story for the second time.  He wanted to think it was due to a poor translation, except Tendo's English was arguably better than his.

     "Miss Tendo, this isn't meant as an insult to either your integrity, or your intelligence . . . I believe you are accurately reporting what you saw.  But Pilots Davis and Ayanami are still at the medcenter.  You do understand that filing a false security report is a serious crime?"

     "Yes, General," the girl rolled her eyes at him, in the way of most teenagers, "But I still say I saw what I saw.  The `Jeff` was headed towards this base, and the `Rei` I saw acted exactly like the Ayanami Rei I've know and dealt with for a month.  If they were fakes, they were very good ones."

     "Well, I've increased the guard on the medcenter and the other pilots.  Do you have any suggestions?" he held up a hand, "I'm sorry if that sounded patronizing, but you've encountered these odd creatures, once here in Tokyo, once on the Coral Sea.  I haven't."

     "I don't even know what I was looking at.  Like I said, I would swear it was Pilots Davis and Ayanami."

     "Well, I've arranged for an escort to get you home.  If I were your father, I might ask why you were following a boy around through the warehouse district at 22:00 hours."

     "He was supposed to be in a coma 10 miles away, I was curious," the Tendo girl told him.  He nodded and thanked her.

     Tomlinson wondered how he was going to report this.

     Asuka sat atop the apartment building, staring out over the city, wishing today had been like yesterday, a harmonics test had put a damper on the discussions about school work.  Only today, Misato made up for missing a day.  This week started out so good! she thought, Misato had been haranguing her about her grades, again.  She had finally blown up.
     "I don't CARE about the grades from some third-rate Middle School staffed with arrogant know-nothings in this third-rate country!  The only reason the teachers object, is they don't want anyone but their precious Japanese, who can't think for themselves.  I am a University graduate, I actually worked and studied.  So I graduated with honors, in three years.  I didn't spend five years scraping by, getting drunk and sleeping with my boyfriend!" Asuka shouted at Misato, "If they have a problem, let them take it up with me.  Maybe an adult could explain it to them without falling out of her dress!"
     Asuka shook her head, touched the red mark, where Misato had slapped her.  She sighed, it was the wrong thing to say, but she was sick of this country.  Small-minded people walking through the same ruts their parents did, and they would expect their children to.  It was in their religion, their culture, they pounded it into you in their schools.  'The tall tree is cut down first', 'the nail that stands up is hammered down'.

     Ice Princess's only redeeming virtue, was that she acted very differently.  That alone earned her some grudging respect, but Misato seemed to have been `promoted` from being a mindless drone, to one of those who hammered the rest of them into being mindless drones.

     She smirked, Spineless's answer was very Russian, no outward resistance, inside he seethed as much as she did.  She wondered if they realized what a disaster they were creating, if their human `masters` were hardly worse than the monsters they faced, the pilots might simply decide to let the monsters win.  If Spineless ever really lost hope . . . she didn't want to think about it, she was already losing hope.

     "Maybe I should take Captain Ramsey up on his offer, providing I can get base housing, Spineless can go live with Wondergirl, leave our Great Captain to choke on her own vomit, after she drinks herself into another stupor," Asuka looked around, "I can't see what Kaji ever saw in her, and I can't see what I was ever jealous of."  She knew she was lying, even after how Kaji acted in the dream, she still loved him, still wanted him to want her.  She hated how Misato kept belittling her, treating her like a child to make sure Kaji was hers and not Asuka's.  That's all this latest tantrum of Misato's was anyway, another excuse to tell Kaji how immature she was.

     Asuka completely missed the patch of dark sky, as it grew larger and larger.  Her first warning, was being seized and hurled off the building into the air.

     Ritsuko felt like screaming, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday they had been doing this.  It never got any better.  She looked over at Maya, who seemed as mystified as she was.

     "Ranma," Ritsuko said, surrendering to the inevitable, "Why don't you do your evening practices, then you can get a shower and go to bed."

     "Yes, ma'am," Ranma left, knowing he'd been dismissed.

     Once he'd left, Ritsuko surveyed her `team`: Maya and Nabiki, and the stack of textbooks and notes from her and Maya's college days.  "What are we doing wrong?"

     "I don't know," Nabiki admitted, "It all made perfect sense to me.  You'd be a better math teacher than the dolt at our school."

     "Don't remind me, Misato has been complaining about Asuka's attitude, for the last few days," Ritsuko said, "I haven't seen her this bent out of shape in years."

     "I feel sorry for Shinji," Maya said.

     "Well, I can understand it, Asuka's probably more qualified to teach the math class that the teacher, and the physics teacher."  Nabiki threw a handful of scratch paper into the air, and leaned back in her chair, "Poof!  Any understanding is purely by accident."

     Nabiki sat forward, "Why are we even in those classes?"

     "Top Secret," Maya leaned close to Nabiki, "We're training you to survive the insanity-inducing power of our enemies."

     "It's working," Nabiki said, "I couldn't have come up with better training."  She sighed, "You do realize we're going to have to do something about Asuka and Misato.  I recommend Kaji give both of them a good spanking.  Preferably in his lap, preferably simultaneously."

     "I somehow think they'd like that," Ritsuko leaned her head back, studied the small patch in the ceiling where she'd stuck the sword.  "I think I liked it better, when the Angels were attacking.  A couple of days of normal, everyday living, and we start tearing ourselves and each other apart."

     "You know you shouldn't have said that," Nabiki chided, "We must now appease the Demon Murphy."

     "You and your Murphy's Law, who is this Murphy anyway?" Ritsuko asked.

     They sat in silence for a while, finally Nabiki stood up, "Well, I'm going to get a shower before Ranma comes back, then I'm going to get some sleep.  Half-day tomorrow, thank goodness."  Nabiki started towards the bathroom.

     "What are we doing wrong?" Ritsuko asked the universe in general, neither the universe, nor Maya answered her.

     Shinji watched Asuka reenter the apartment.  He wished she'd have stayed out, considering the reception waiting for her from Misato-san.

     "Captain, I wish to apologize for my outburst.  I should have realized it isn't easy for you to look after two children, all alone."

     Shinji saw Asuka's face was flushed, and she seemed to be in too good a mood to be giving in so quickly.  Shinji wondered what had happened, Asuka looked terribly pleased with - something.

     "I'm glad you learned your lesson," Misato said, more angry with Asuka's meek compliance than the confrontation Shinji would have sworn she was hoping for.

     "Oh, yes.  I'll see to it, that it doesn't happen again," Asuka bowed as she headed for her room, "I don't wish to be a burden on you."

     "Asuka, that isn't what I meant," Misato said in pursuit.

     "Oh don't worry," Asuka soothed, "I understand completely.  Excuse me, Captain, but I am tired, and I'd like to get some sleep.  Busy day tomorrow," she said cheerily.

     Misato looked a bit bewildered as Asuka carefully, and quietly, closed the door.

     Shinji was wondering what Asuka had been drinking, and he also suspected that Misato wouldn't like whatever Asuka was plotting.  Moreso because Misato obviously didn't see it at all.  Shinji wondered how mad Misato would be, when she learned Asuka had outmaneuvered her, he also wondered if he could hide out with Ritsuko for a few months.  After the blow fell.

     Asuka grinned from ear-to-ear, as she flopped down in her bed.  She hugged her pillow against her.  All the cobwebs blown out of her head, she was thinking again, as she always used to.  She'd go see Captain Ramsey and Admiral Simson tomorrow after school, and arrange housing on the base, she felt a little guilty about leaving Spineless and Pen Pen here, but she had to protect herself first.

     The Dragon had been right, and it was so good seeing him again.  It also explained where he'd disappeared to.  Just talking to him had helped so much, she'd never realized how important it was to be able to bounce ideas off someone else.  Someone with an active intelligence, not the poor, pale imitations around here.  She thought that wasn't fair, Ice Princess and Spineless could think, in their little areas.

     Boy will Captain Katsuragi be surprised when I move out, she thought, All I have to do is check the actual regulations, not what they tell me.

     She laughed at the memory of utter helplessness and complete trust.  She realized what she'd really been missing, what she really wanted to do, and how alive it made her feel.  She smiled again, then thought of poor Kensuke, Well if he wants to be an EVA pilot, he should expect the unexpected.

     "Too bad Wondergirl's laid up, or we could try it together," Asuka whispered, "I'd LOVE to see the look on her face."

     Kensuke was shivering in the bathroom, he didn't care that he'd wet himself, some nightmares went so far beyond the limits, no reaction could be ruled out.

     He'd thought he was awake at first, walking home after a late night of watching, taking pictures, looking and listening.  That's what eyes and ears did.  Suddenly he was hundreds of feet above Tokyo, watching the night light and the stars spin around him.  He wasn't sure at what point he lost his glasses.  The laughter he heard, and the wild shrieks of delight, could only have been Asuka's, but all he could make out was a reddish blur.  Even then, he couldn't imagine what would please `Sour Kraut` enough to get her to make those sounds.  Then his mad ascent had stopped, and reality reasserted itself.

     Then he knew, as his doom and the pavement of Tokyo approached at the exact same speed.  He knew that his death was what had excited her so.  But as soon as he realized that, something arrested the natural order of things.  He began heading up again, as if thrown by some immense creature.  Again and again, rise, descend, Asuka screaming with delight, him just screaming, as the dream went on and on.

     Finally it ended, not with the impact on the pavement, or impalement on some fence or tower, but with Asuka standing over him in his bedroom.  She put his glasses back on, he saw her smiling, beaming actually.

     "Not bad, Aida-san," she said, "But that was even more fun than being an EVA pilot."

     The dream faded at that point, almost as if he'd fainted or something.  He'd woken screaming and retreated here, to wait and wonder, he wasn't going back to sleep again tonight!

Plunge Pool

     The pilots and some friends had assembled around the picnic spot, the same bowl-shaped one they'd found last Sunday.

     Nabiki was glad the others had embraced the Sunday get togethers so enthusiastically, each for their own reasons.  "But that's okay," Nabiki said quietly, as she watched Ranma and Toji were setting up a small grill, Asuka was supervising everything, and Rei and Shinji lay out the blanket.  Rei was moving slowly, but Ritsuko had thought a little time outside wouldn't hurt.

     She glanced over at the `adults`, Ritsuko, Maya and Misato.  Kaji hadn't been invited by either Misato or Asuka, Nabiki was confused by that.

     "I never knew this place was here," Maya commented on the park-like area in the NERV compound.

     "The guards use this as a lunch area," Rei supplied.

     Figures she'd check out every detail of the place, Nabiki thought, looked around, it was a nice area.

     "So what are you two cooking," Misato asked, she was still angry that Ritsuko had insisted on NO beer.

     "Just some fish," Toji laid the butterflied fish on the grill, filling the small clearing with the smell of frying fish.

     "Where'd you learn to cook?" Hikari was laying out the rice and pickled vegetables.

     "What are you doing, Ice Princess?" Asuka stared at her.

     "Supervising, just like you," Nabiki shot back, smiled at Asuka's frown.  Asuka and Nancy headed off to collect the rest of the food and the sporting equipment for later.

     Hiroko and Maya started laughing at the two of them.  Asuka simply shrugged, and gave up the fight.

     Nabiki wondered why Asuka had been in such a good mood today, smiling at Misato periodically, She's planning something, something to completely blindside our dear Captain, Nabiki realized.

     Even with that fight upcoming, Nabiki was still thinking that things were going too well, Belldandy's warning came back to her.  That's why we're inside NERV property, she reminded herself, and the Security and the military were patrolling the 500 meters between them and the fence.  We're safe, she told herself, returning to checking on the bottles of soft drinks, making sure that Misato hadn't smuggled any beer with her.

     The first explosion shocked her, Even Akane's cooking doesn't do that! Nabiki thought as she threw herself to the ground, covering her head, as dozens more blasts showered everyone with dirt, and the smell of explosives and burnt filled the little clearing.

     As suddenly as it started, it was over.  When it seemed clear there would be no more explosions, she raised her head.  All the pilots and others had thrown themselves flat.

     "What were you thinking?!" Hiroko shouted at Rei, lying on top of her, where she'd tackled the pilot, "Don't jump into water!  Water conducts shock," Hiroko helped the girl to her feet.  "My uncle got killed by a bomb while he was hiding in a river."

     Rei nodded, "Thank you."

     "Is everyone all right?" Ritsuko hauled Misato and Maya to their feet.

     "Asuka!" Shinji yelled.

     "I'm fine," Asuka shouted back, from down the hillock, then more quietly, "Nancy's dead."

     "How can you know that?" Ranma charged over to the crest, "You have to - "

     "Stop!  Don't!" Asuka frantically shouted, Ranma ignored her.  Ranma looked down, crumbled to his knees and started throwing up.

     Because I'm wearing what's left of her, Nabiki thought.  Just the thought made her queasy, the noises Ranma was making nearly pushed her to joining him on her knees.  Nabiki didn't have any illusions about the fate of someone hit by artillery.  It was a perverse miracle that none on the hill's crest were even scratched.

     Kaji wasn't happy with the breach in security, he was even less pleased to be peremptorily ordered to make a report.  He entered General Tomlinson's office, the U.S. Army general who was also supposed to be providing security to the Children.  Kaji's angry denouncement died, as he looked at the pipe and five stars on the other guest in the office.

     "I think we need to explain everything we know," Tomlinson nodded at his visitor, obviously awed by their master.

     Admiral Simson was having a similar meeting with Commanders Ikari and Fuyutsuki, in Ikari's office.

     "Mortars, several of them.  They either used a time on target barrage, or they were bunched together," Simson told the others.

     "Time on target?" Fuyutsuki asked.

     "Calculate the flight time, so all the first volley arrived at the same time, the rest of the blasts were more ragged.  Twenty-four impacts, we estimate four to eight mortars, with six to three shots each, respectively.  An 81mm has a range of 2 miles, the 4.2 inch 2.5 miles, they could have been anywhere in a very large area."

     "Not a rocket launcher?" Ikari asked.

     "No, the forensic evidence indicates a mortar," Simson admitted, "Besides, a rocket launcher isn't as portable or concealable as a pack of mortars."

     "Pilot Langley suffered some shrapnel injuries," Gendo told him, "We also wish to express our condolences on the loss of your officer."

     "I bet Dr. Akagi isn't happy picking pieces of her assistant out of one of the pilots," Simson replied.

     "What additional security can be provided?" Ikari asked.

     "Short of loading them back aboard the Coral Sea, and heading out to sea, there is no way to combat this directly," Simson admitted, "We are combing the area the rounds could have been fired from.  Unfortunately, mortars don't leave shell casings, and they aren't as loud as most artillery.  But we're hoping someone saw or heard something."

     "Until then, what?" Fuyutsuki asked, "Keep them locked up in the bowels of the headquarters?"

     "My first instinct would be to say yes," Simson replied, "The only thing that worries me, is anyone who could pull this off, has excellent intelligence resources.  I doubt any reasonable precautions would be completely effective.  I suspect that we'll be getting additional security resources very soon.  My real concern is: Would SEELE have anything to do with this?  And if so, why?"

     Gendo found himself sweating, SEELE's existence was supposed to be secret.  But this action, was well within their capabilities, and had their sense of subtlety.

     "You missed your target!" the little man actually screamed at General Tembris, "SEELE won't be pleased!"

     The General's soldiers expected him to slap down this pipsqueak.  They were disappointed.  "The point is to get their specimen, not wanton slaughter.  If they want it done tomorrow, they should do it themselves.  If we do it, we operate on our timetable."

     "They want it done soon."

     "Soon implies weeks, they'll get it done soon," Tembris explained carefully, "Do you really think they want you doing it, in a way you'll be able to collect your money?" Tembris was disgusted by the look of shock and greed that played over the little man's features.  He had never understood where all this - creature's - vices came from.  His only real vice was anger, and it cost him often enough.

     "They'd betray me?" the man asked.

     "Ask for an advance, next time they pressure you," Tembris idly surveyed the warehouse they'd returned to, "I think you'll find them highly evasive.  Besides, do you want this all traced back to you?"

     The little man shook his head.

     "Good, now return to work before you're missed," Tembris dismissed his counterpart from his thoughts.

     Once the man was gone in truth, Tembris congratulated his men, "The shooting was perfect, I think the barrage did not harm the Meliorist's counterpart physically.  The psychological aspects on her and the others will pay good dividends when we need to move."

     The others accepted this.

     "We still need to practice, it should work a time or two again," he ignored the groans as he headed for the mage they'd brought with them.

     "Are the spells of nondetection still holding?" Tembris asked.

     "Yes, General, and the homonculous is on schedule," the mage answered, "It's going to take a while to set it exactly as you wanted."

     "Take the time," Tembris told him, "SEELE will hurriedly do something stupid, and we will have to wait for things to calm down, until we can act again."

     "Things are going well?" the mage asked.  The General nodded.

     Nabiki cursed silently, her fate, their enemies, her own stupidity.  Ranma was in her arms, holding her as tightly as she was holding him.  She wasn't absolutely sure he was shivering as much as she was.  Maya's arms had encircled both of them, holding them together on the couch, as both she and Nabiki broke down.

     Ranma had said nothing.  Nabiki wished he cry, scream, sob, do something to show how badly all this had shaken him.  Maybe holding and being held, was as close as he got to showing any vulnerability.  She knew he was scared, as terrified as she was.  This wasn't an Angel, this wasn't an ancient evil from the depths of time, that they could fight in their EVAs.  This wasn't another martial artist, who'd scream death threats, and be satisfied by a defeat or surrender.  This was a band of ordinary humans, people more like her, than like him, dedicated to killing them.  Not suicidal maniacs, but careful professionals, who clearly wanted to survive the experience and escape.

     Here, deep in the bowels of NERV HQ they were safe, As safe as we were up top, she thought resentfully.  She bitterly reflected that she'd also `won`, when she'd started to break down, Ranma had come to her, almost on instinct, holding her as her tears started and refused to stop.  Someone had to die to get this to happen, she thought, the irony didn't amuse her.

     "You couldn't do nothin'," Ranma told her, "I . . . I couldn't do nothin'."

     "Ranma," she managed, "Nobody could have done anything.  You can't feel . . . "

     "You neither," he replied.

     Nabiki let herself cry some more, wondered how Maya felt, Nancy Thompson had worked closely with her for two years.  In a heartbeat, at a childrens' picnic, they erased her.  Maya didn't sob, silently shaking, maybe rage, maybe sadness, probably both.

     Nabiki silently vowed to use her resources, all of them, to find these people, this time she wouldn't feel the least bit guilty, if the Army killed them all.

     She loosened her grip on Ranma slightly, she hadn't meant to start crushing him, and he hadn't complained.  "Sorry," she apologized, "I don't like being helpless."

     "Me neither," Ranma replied, held her a little tighter.  She didn't think, she didn't move for a while, letting things come to her.

     Shinji glanced over to Rei, as the orderlies wheeled Asuka out of the surgery.  Dr. Akagi followed them, supervising the transfer.  Shinji preferred the medical center, there at least he could look out the windows, but after the attack this afternoon, a few dozen feet of cement between them and the outside world, seemed a good idea.  The dozens of small bandages and stitches speckled Asuka's face and arms, Shinji suspected they covered the other parts he couldn't see.

     Dr. Akagi waved them over, "She'll be a little drunk from the anesthesia, so don't take too much of what she says seriously."

     "Will she be all right?" Shinji asked.

     "Physically, she'll be fine," she assured the pilots, "I don't think any of us are `all right`.  She'd probably appreciate talking to someone."  Ritsuko smiled, "Even if she doesn't make much sense."

     Shinji nodded as Ritsuko turned and walked away, he was glad Rei followed him into Asuka's room.

     "Hey Spineless, and Wondergirl too," Asuka said.

     She does sound a little like Misato, Shinji thought as he tried not to look at all the bandages on her face and arms.  "Does it hurt?"

     "Naw, Spineless, feeling reeeal good," she smiled lopsidedly at him, "You know, I've got a secret for you."  She peered over at Rei, "You too, Wondergirl."

     Shinji wasn't sure he would have gotten this close to Asuka, if Rei hadn't been there to back him up.  Something in the back of his mind suggested Asuka was very dangerous, in her present state.  He could understand that, the murder made him angry.  Since Asuka was angry as matter of course, she was probably ready to kill someone, or something, whatever came to hand.

     "I won't hurtcha!" she smiled, pulled him closer.  "I was thinking of stealing you away," she whispered loudly, "Let you enjoy being around a real woman."

     Shinji blushed and frowned, this was the same nonsense she'd been talking before they took on those flame things.  He tried to pull away without being too obvious about it, but Asuka held firm.

     "Then I thought of poor little Rei, lost, lonely, little Wondergirl, like a dolly on the shelf, that nobody plays with," Asuka told him, shifting her arms to his shoulders.

     "I - " he started to protest.  That was all the opening Asuka needed.

     She pulled his mouth to hers, kissing him passionately, Shinji wasn't strong enough to escape her grip.  He blushed furiously at the coarse touch on his tongue.  He managed to pull away.

     "Asuka!?" Shinji shouted.

     "Practice makes perfect, Wondergirl," Asuka laughed, "Just be firm but gentle, and make sure he can't run away."  A moment later the laughter ended, and Asuka slumped in the bed, asleep.

     Shinji nearly jumped when Rei put a hand on his shoulder.  "I'm sorry, I didn't - I mean I wasn't - "

     She pulled him out of her way, stepped up to Asuka's bedside, "Is she pretty?"

     Shinji was worried about Rei making the small finger motions on Asuka's cheek, circling the stitches and bandages, he was sure Rei was humming something.  "She's always been a little vain about her looks," Shinji stammered, "I don't think she really . . . I mean Akagi-sensei said she was - drunk from the anesthetic."

     "She will recover fully," Rei turned to look at Shinji, then headed for the door.

     Shinji relaxed slightly as they walked down the hall, away from Asuka's room.  He thought he was out of the woods, when Rei turned to face him.  He'd seen the intensity of that look only once before: in Rei's apartment, facing those things.  She'd looked at him that way, then raised her hand to strike him.  He'd seen how strong she was, the blow might have killed him, if it had ever landed.

     He backed up a step, his shoulders encountered a door jamb, he was trapped now, as she advanced another step.  She gripped both his shoulders, steadying herself as she raised up on her tiptoes, staring directly into his face, less than a handsbreadth between their faces, between their lips.  Her breath tickled his face.

     His heart was beating wildly, he was sweating and unsure.  Normally he could at least guess at what she was feeling, right now he couldn't be sure.  Should I do something?  Should I do nothing, and let her act? he wondered, not certain what she was actually going to do, he had what he wanted her to do, and what he feared she might do.

     "No, it is not time yet," she dropped back down and released him.

     He felt terribly relieved, and terribly cheated.  He caught up with her, as she walked down the corridor, impulsively he took her hand, she didn't even look up, but her fingers closed around his.  They walked in silence for a while, Shinji realized he hadn't the faintest idea where they were going, or if there was someplace they should be going.

     Ranma felt Nab-chan's gentle snoring.  When she started crying, he had to do something, anything, to make her stop.  The truth is, he thought, I wanted to join her.

     What he'd seen from the crest of that little hill, would haunt him forever.  Asuka was standing there, shaking, she'd been covered in blood, he'd thought she'd been hit, despite her assurances.  Then he saw the shredded bag of bats and balls, etc. she was holding by one end, and that the person on the other end, was completely gone.

     His mind put two and two together, and his stomach totaled it.  He'd never saw or heard the shells coming in, just the explosions.  He could do nothing, not to protect the others, not to deal with the aftermath.  Asuka had some cuts and scraped where . . . Ranma's stomach threatened to empty again, at the thoughts of where those fragments had come from, and what they were.

     When Nabiki had given way, he only remembered one thing, when he, actually she, had panicked, trapped in that box with a cat.  Ranma only needed to see a move once, to duplicate it perfectly from then on, he paralleled what had been done to Ranko, for her.  Evidently, it was the right thing to do.  Maya had enclosed both of them, and cried for her friend.

     Ranma couldn't cry, guys don't ever cry . . . and he wanted revenge.  Whoever did this, didn't have the courage to face them directly, he hated that kind of cowardice.  To attack without warning, then sneak away.

     He wondered how he could find them, he wondered how he could fight them.  He wondered if he could kill them.

     I'm also wondering how I can quit feeling so helpless, Ranma admitted to himself, Because that's what's really making me mad, being helpless again.  He idly wondered if there was a technique that let you deal with artillery, and sadly realized, without an AT field, he wouldn't have a chance, and that required the help of someone else.

     Captain Ramsey entered Admiral Simson's office.  It was already very late, in what had been a very long day.  Having to brief the Army hadn't been any fun, briefing MacArthur and the Emperor himself, Or was that the Emperor and MacArthur himself? Ramsey smiled, sighed, today would probably end his career, or at least his chances for promotion.

     "Do you want the good news, the bad news, or the worst news?" he asked Admiral Simson, who looked as tired as he felt.

     "All at once," the Admiral rubbed his eyes, "I'll separate it myself."

     "All the pilots will recover.  Army Intel found a witness to the attackers.  He reports they were using 4.2 inch mortars, a battery of six.  They climbed back into army trucks, he even got the numbers off the side.  We are running down those trucks, and the mortars now.  The problem is, our specials went out, and found nothing.  Not no evidence of mythos activity, nothing.  No traces of any kind, if they were there, it was all erased."

     "Terrific, what's the worst news?" Admiral Simson joked, "Sit down, Captain, I'm too tired and angry to insist on protocols.  Do our, specials, have any way of breaking the camouflage?"

     "No, sir, according to them, nothing was laid down, so there is nothing to pick up.  Whoever did this, didn't just cover their tracks well, they never put any down; and they were just doing a job."

     "Professionals, just what we needed."  Simson turned, stared out into the darkness.

     Ramsey guessed he was wondering how secure they were here, mortars were apolitical, they would work for whoever loaded them.  Some mercenaries might be the same way.

     "Security?" Simson asked.

     "They're all deep in NERV HQ.  The South Dakota might be able to blast through to them, but nothing less.  With three Marine regiments deployed in depth, nobody's going to get anywhere near them."

     "So where did we fail, and how do we fix this, before it happens again?" Simson turned back to his aide, asking the question of the hour.


     Tembris waited with his lieutenant, near the hatch leading to the roof of the warehouse.  A dozen men were restraining his Waking World counterpart, who was gibbering with fear.

     Tembris's binoculars tracked the spot of darkness, as it moved across the starry sky.

     "Why hasn't NERV spotted him?" the other man asked.

     "They don't know what they're looking for," Tembris told him, "From what I've learned, their enemies have a huge signature, they track the signature, not the beast itself."

     "He seems to be searching for something," the man joked.  Both men felt the probing malevolence of the monster.  They were both aware of their own mage chanting desperate counterspells, to keep them unseen and undetectable.

     "They found him," Tembris pointed to a dozen F4U Corsairs unleashing their rockets at the huge flying creature.  They watched in silence, as the dozens of rocket trails closed with the Dragon.  Then the planes' exhaust flames brightened and the formation scattered.

     Both men realized the Dragon's illusions wouldn't deter anyone who ignored them, but the pilots had never encountered one before.  Whatever they were seeing, must have seemed plausible and very dangerous.

     The Dragon completed another sector, closing on them, but not closing his search pattern.  If he knew they were there, he wasn't about to let on.

     After an hour of knuckle-biting fear, the Dragon passed within 100 yards of their warehouse, and continued his relentless search pattern.

     "Let's go below, he'll either attack, or he won't, and he'll give us no warning."

     They descended into the darkness, from outside nothing could be felt inside the building, except the condemned military gear, that was all the warehouse was supposed to contain.  Inside, no one made a light or a sound to add to the mage's burden of hiding the place from outside observers.  They would continue to wait for sunrise, the demon seemed to fear the light, and the firepower it might face in plain view.  If no attack came by daybreak, they had evaded detection.

     The Dragon hadn't found anything.  He wanted to resume his proper form despite the daylight, and tear the city apart, building by building, street by street, until he found them!  But the human form and the squalid apartment kept him from having to fight creatures who were not his enemy, for the privilege of killing those who were.

     He had wanted to be in this world, to travel to the Ultimate South.  He didn't know what dark forces had arranged his presence here.  But while he was here, he would do useful work.  Vengeance would come later, or second-hand.

     'Duty is heavier than a mountain,' what a load of crap! he raged, Duty is a small rock in your shoe, during an otherwise pleasant hike: it spoils your fun, and it drives you crazy!

     That he hadn't anything to eat also made him angry.  The Cthonians were getting scarce, they had not ignored his stealthy predations, but couldn't explain them.  So they fled.  Someone was going to have to do something permanent about them.  But he couldn't travel through the planet's core, and slaughter all of them, but he could keep up the guerrilla war, as could others.