Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 14-15 ( Chapter 7 )

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

Chapter 14: Unbending Heaven, Movable Hell
     Siren Call
     A Slender Reed
     Capitulation to the Inevitable
     Salutations from the Gloom
     The Variform Pack
     Dragon in Antarctica
     Body Bag
     Clarion Focus

Chapter 15 - Differing Opinions
     Heaping Hot Coals
     Bad Day
     Shinji's Relapse

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 14 - Unbending Heaven, Movable Hell


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)

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.  The pilots react to the aftermath of the dreams and their battle against the Tulzscha.

    Ranma get some insights into his troubles, his odd dreams return.

    Asuka completes her design for new weapons for the EVAs.

    The repercutions for Misato castigating Asuka for her unauthorized and highly successful batte and rescue are felt.  The healthy pilots are spending time together, Ranma tells off Nabiki for her behavior.

    TheScholarly Dragon arrives in the Waking World, by unknown means.

    Ritsuko faced an impossible challenge, even Nabiki and Maya can help her, tutoring Ranma.  The Scholarly Dragon meets with Asuka, and gives her plans for a campaign against Misato.

    During a Sunday picnic, the pilots are mortared, Nancy Thompson is killed, Asuka is slightly injured.

    While she is recovering from surgery she urges Rei to kiss Shinji, after showing her how.

The coastlands have seen and are afraid, the ends of the earth tremble; they have drawn near and come.  Every one helps his neighbor, and says to his brother, "Take courage!"

Isaiah 41: 5-6

Chapter 14 - Unbending Heaven, Movable Hell

Siren Call

     Admiral Simson walked around the damaged hillock, the trees had been shorn of their leaves, some had splintered, they should have filled the clearing with whirring fragments that should have killed everyone trapped within.

     Except the first rounds hit far enough downslope, that the fragments went over the pilots' heads, and the later rounds merely sought to cut off any thought of escape.  The kids did exactly the right thing, they hunkered down and stayed put.  As an assassination attempt on the pilots, it was a damned strange one.

     "What do you think?" Simson asked General Tomlinson and his experts.

     "The pattern is a modified box barrage, to isolate an area from outside support.  They were practicing pinning the pilots down, holding them somewhere.  For what purpose, I can only guess."

     It jibed well with what Admiral Simson had thought on hearing the initial reports, he couldn't believe them, so he had to see for himself.

     "I can think of a lot of reasons you wouldn't want your targets to move.  Not the least of which is once you get them immobile, then cover this entire clearing with fire," Simson told the General.

     "Professionals would have done that already, it's something else," Tomlinson nodded to an approaching British ordinance officer.

     "Sirs," the British major handed the General a clipboard, "It was definitely one of your 107 mm's, what you call a four-deuce mortar.  What concerns us is this one."  The Major walked over to the blast that killed Nancy Thompson and wounded Asuka.  "The charge in this one, was perhaps a third of normal, very strange.  Almost as if the attackers wanted to minimize the risks to Pilot Langley, 'strodninary."

      The two American General officers exchanged looks, that confirmed it, they wanted the pilots alive.  Neither wanted to consider the possibilities that entailed, that the `kids` had a `normal` life was supposed to be an imperative, keeping them under the necessary security to keep them safe and alive, seemed to preclude that.  They had to find these people, and punish them, publicly.

     Misha sat in the captain's cabin of his crystal ship, and wearily swept the last of the powder into the bottle.  He set the bottle with its brothers, in the chest.  Once it was locked, he pulled out another, similar chest.  More old comrades, with a spell they would return from the grave to serve Rodina motherland and World Socialism again.  In a few years, he could bring the 1st crew back, he lamented that his mistake forced him to return them to the essential salts they had been resurrected from, but they were technically, already dead.  He wasn't, and he desperately wanted to stay that way.  They would have to report his lapse into religiosity, and there would be a firing squad that followed.  He would find a way to make it up to them, when it wasn't life and death, his.

     He sighed, considered the efforts of training and breaking in a new crew, after he had calmed them down from their revivification.  Explaining, they had been dead, explaining how much time had passed, explaining their new mission, and the new realities of the Dreamlands.

     Better that Stalin had never been born, but SEELE needed him and that Austrian painter for their plans, Misha considered the bottle and wondered if that was why the Germans had gone to such extents to hide his body, as the Russians had Lenin's.  Their reappearance, would cause problems to the great world order SEELE had prepared.

     Misha poured the contents of the first bottle on the floor, and began his spell.

     Ritsuko looked over the last of her three patients.  Rei was almost ready to be released, amazing considering the injuries she'd suffered.  Jeff was virtually unchanged, fever, coma, medicine seemed able to do nothing.  Asuka was another story.

     "No, I don't care if you feel fine, you can't leave.  Just rest, you'll heal quicker."

     "It's not right," Asuka pouted as she looked around the hospital room, "You won't let me work, I'm not an invalid."

     "I don't want you pulling your stitches.  After last night, I could hardly expect you to stay quiet."

     "Last night?" Asuka seemed puzzled, then covered her face with her hands, "Gott in Himmel!  I can't believe I actually kissed Spineless, in front of Wondergirl no less.  I've gone mad!  My life is over!"

     "So are you sure you don't want to hide out here?" Ritsuko teased, "I can keep them out, even Kaji if you like."

     Asuka flopped back in the bed, "It wasn't a dream, it was all a nightmare.  Please don't let Kaji know."

     "I'm afraid Rei already told him.  Walked up to him and Commander Ikari, and asked about researching a procedure, since Kaji was the acknowledged expert.  'The Second Children considered important.'"

     Asuka squeezed her eyes shut, and covered her face with the pillow.

     "It isn't the end of the world, I think both of them appreciated your efforts to educate Rei."  After the Commander quit being shocked and Kaji quit laughing himself silly, Ritsuko thought.

     The moan from Asuka convinced her to stop, "It's not fatal, and Rei did tell them you were still under anesthesia.  I don't think you've alienated Kaji forever."  Ritsuko smiled, she doubted Asuka would be eager to leave her bed any time soon.

     Ritsuko walked the corridors to her office.  The Marine guards challenged her several times.  They seemed relieved she cooperated, she'd heard Misato complaining 'You know who I am!'  Ritsuko also knew that there was something out there that could take on the appearance of two of the pilots.  That didn't bode well, she was worried about the possibility of infiltration. 

     She entered her office, and found Nabiki and Ranma waiting for her.  "Have you told him what you saw?" Ritsuko asked.

     Nabiki nodded.

     "All right, then get suited up, meet me in the gym."

     "What for?" Ranma asked.

     "Because the fact that one of you, us, might not be one of us in the future, we should be able to defend ourselves, and each other.  Frankly, I'm not that worried about you two on that score."  She had expected that would brighten Ranma's attitude.

     It didn't, "I don't hit girls."

     It was an indication how depressed Ranma was, that Ritsuko caught him without him successfully dodging.  She tossed the stunned martial artist in the air, caught him, and tossed him in the air again.  "Let's just say I'm not a girl, or you can help Nabiki teach me."  She set the boggled boy down, then impulsively hugged him, "Agreed."

     Ranma nodded, wide-eyed.  Nabiki gulped, and stood to follow Ritsuko and Ranma to the gym.

     Rit-chan hit the mat again.

     As fast and strong as she is, Ranma, actually Ranko, thought, She might as well be a training dummy for Nabiki.  Ranko stood ready to intervene.  Neither Rit-chan nor Nab-cahn were willing to admit defeat, and Nab-chan seemed to be showing off for him, which irritated Rit-chan.  Girls, Ranko lamented.

     Ranko considered that Rit-chan was taller, heavier, stronger and faster than Nab-chan, those characteristics weren't giving her any advantages over Nab-chan's training.

     "Okay!" Ranko separated them before they started to hurt each other, she glared at both of them, when they seemed unwilling to accept the fight was over.

     "Okay, Nab-chan, she needs to know how to fall, to start with, then how to throw a punch.  I don't think I need to tell you how to take a punch."  Ranko watched the pair warily, she'd never seen either as intense as they had been, she wondered if she could separate them, without hurting them.  She sighed as they drew apart.  She watched Nab-chan go through the same moves that she'd taught to Shinji and Rei.

     Asuka looked up, on hearing the approaching squeak, as it got closer and closer to her room, she felt her teeth go on edge as it approached at its own pace.  "Just drag your nails across a chalkboard and be done with it!" she shouted.

     Wondergirl backed into the room, pulling a squeaking cart with her, it was filled with books.

     "I do not have one," Wondergirl said, as she began removing the books from the cart and stacking them on a table within Asuka's reach.  "These may be of more use, many are in English."

     "Thank you," Asuka said grudgingly.

     "You are welcome," Wondergirl said, stopped, stared at her.

     "Can I help you, Wondergirl?"

     "I can find no research on the subject, the experts are not helpful," Wondergirl told her as she continued staring.

     "The subject?" Asuka was terrified that she knew exactly what Wondergirl was asking about, she'd never been so self-conscious in her life.

     "'Practice makes perfect'," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka sighed, thought of just telling Wondergirl off, but she had brought her the books, "There's no research, because it's personal, you can't read about it, you just have to try it," she grinned at Wondergirl, "That's why practice, practice, practice."

     Asuka was shocked that Wondergirl actually blushed, "You're afraid of kissing him?!" Asuka couldn't believe it.

     Wondergirl turned and left.  Asuka felt a little bad, laughing at Wondergirl that way, but it was too ridiculous.  Asuka reached out and picked out one of the books and started reading.  She did wonder where Wondergirl got all these books, and why she didn't want to read them.

     Shinji watched Nabiki-san, Ritsuko-sensei and a thoroughly angry Ranko-san going through the same basics Nabiki-san had taught him.  He wondered how Ranma-san in a room deep inside NERV HQ, managed to get splashed with cold water.  Nabiki-san and Doctor Akagi looked almost as angry.

     He wondered if they'd ever get to go back up to the surface, see the sunlight again.  He hated being below ground for what seemed like forever, he didn't know for certain how long they'd been down here.  Maybe just a day, maybe longer.

     He kept walking, wondering where Ayanami-san had gone to.

     Nabiki heard Ranko rub her hands together, then she touched her back, the friction-induced heat eased the knotted muscle some, then Ranko really got to work.

     Nabiki was enjoying the easing of the knots her muscles seemed to have transmuted themselves into.  As Ranko worked, Nabiki glared at Ritsuko, "How is it, you aren't as stiff and sore as I am?"

     "I know enough to properly warm up, you expected to just kick the old lady around."

     "I did warm up," Nabiki winced as Ranko found a particularly hard knot.

     "Maybe," Ranko told her, "Maybe it wasn't the exercise."

     Nabiki frowned, she understood what Ranko was implying, all the troops, the wary looks, everyone was on edge.  With Nabiki, it manifested physically, "I'd rather have a few knots, instead of an ulcer."

     "You need to let go of it," Ranko counseled.

     "Let go of what?" she asked sweetly, Ranko's answering sigh hurt, Give up my anger, she realized, and that Ranma was tired of dealing with it as well.

     "What do you suggest?" she asked, "If no place is safe, if no one is safe . . . what am I supposed to do?  Shinji isn't back on the combat roster, Asuka and Raccoon are out of commission."

     "So is Rei," Ritsuko added.

     "That means it's just you and me," Nabiki said, "How can I relax, not worry about that?"

     "I didn't say 'don't worry', I said, you need to let go of your anger.  If a battle is going to happen, it's going to happen."

     "I can't think like that, there's got to be something I can do."

     "You can't," Ritsuko sat next to Nabiki and Ranko, "You can be ready, but not all the time, for everything.  Eventually it will happen, but all our plans and preparations are just that, not guarantees.  If you're looking for certainty, you won't find it."

     I can't just let go and drift, Nabiki considered, "Don't you wish you could do something?"

     Nabiki felt Ranko's hands stop, Ritsuko looked confounded.

     "What, what could we do?" Nabiki sighed, I'm just complaining, I don't have any more real answers than they do, she realized.

A Slender Reed

     Rei stood in the Dreamlands again, she watched Alwyk receive the reports, that the Scholarly Dragon had not been seen anywhere in the Dreamlands.

     "If you do not have the device," Rei patiently told Alwyk and Anna, the chief of Scouts, "The Scholarly Dragon will not return to the Dreamlands.  He is in the Waking World."  She let them react, while she carefully selected her next words.

     "That's impossible!  If he used a gate, we'd know!" Anna replied.

     Then the Meliorist walked in, and froze at the sight of Rei, "What is that doing here?"

     Even Rei could tell she was angry, and afraid.

     "I make it back from Ulthar, and find you consorting with, her?!" the Meliorist demanded of her allies.

     "The Scholarly Dragon is in the Waking World," Rei told her, "He should not be there, he should be here."

     "Okay," the Meliorist's knuckles whitened, as she clutched the long polearm, that was her symbol as much as her long, red hair, "What's that to us?"

     "She wants the urn," Alwyk told her, "She seems to believe it can open a gate."

     "No, without it, he cannot return here."

     "Are you holding us to ransom?" the Meliorist marched over, she stopped short of the edge of the rug that held Rei within it, "Are you?!" she demanded, then laughed, "You don't even know what it does."

     "I have some idea," Rei admitted.

     Rei watched the other woman pace the room, Rei wanted to ask why she was disturbed by her presence, what she was afraid of, why she was.  She suspected that there would only be violence as an answer, unfortunately.

     "Give it to her," the Meliorist ordered, "Then get her out of here."

     "That's an order," she added coldly to prevent comments, then she turned to Rei, "If this is a trick.  I'll gut you, and leave you for the buzzards and the worms."

     "I cannot promise - "

     "Then be ready to die," the Meliorist marched out, away from her bewildered allies.

     A few hours later, Rei had the urn in hand, and a cavalry `escort`, including Anna, "What does it do?" Anna asked as she kept her horse cantering alongside Rei.

     "I do not know yet," Rei admitted, she had a theory, one she would need privacy to use properly.  Now she had to discover how to evade these pursuers.  She did not want to reveal what she could do, to anyone.  It would be more than unwise, it was forbidden.

     Maya felt afraid, for two days, the pilots and senior staff lived completely underground, in an endless cycle of eating, sleeping and tests.  Nabiki was finally catching up with the others, in terms of testing time.  Maya knew part of it was just busy work, to keep everyone's mind off the events of Sunday.  While Nabiki was verbally glad of getting the simulator time, she was showing the strain, as all of them were.

     Maya had volunteered to go out and get some food, she had volunteers to go help, but turned them all down.  She wanted, needed, some time alone.

     Captain Everett and Lieutenant Thompson had been with her since the day the Americans captured the base.  She'd stood there blocking the corridor, until she had verification that the NERV staff weren't to be summarily executed.  Their government `masters` had assured them the Occupation would do just that.  The two American officers, and the company of Marine Raiders backing them, had been extremely patient, and kind.  Now both were gone.  Lt. Baker and Lt. Aoba were competent officers, but neither was a substitute for her two friends.  First one, then the other, as she walked outside, she wondered if she was next.  The guards maintained a discreet distance, but she also knew they were hoping to draw out whoever was doing this.  She didn't like being bait, even for sempai and the pilots.

     She glanced up at the mast, a tripod mast, scavenged from a wrecked cruiser, it was a marker, for a number of restaurants clustered together.  That was her destination, she smiled at that.  None of the pilots had agreed what they wanted, but fortunately all the 'best place to get' what they wanted, were in this cluster.  So she'd give the orders, and come back to pick up the finished food.  She wanted to turn around and run back to base, to sempai.

     But I can't, she thought to herself, If I don't do this, I'll never be able to go out again.

     She was aware of a tall man, who had been following her, she didn't recognize him as part of security, his Army uniform didn't necessarily mean anything.

     He never got any closer, and stayed at just the same distance.  Maya wanted to break into a run, but she wanted to master her fear.  She wanted to stop, but if she stopped, she worried she might never start moving again.

     Then she started getting angry, None of the pilots would be acting like this, she thought, We send them out, if necessary to die, and I'm worrying about going out to buy some food!

     She turned to confront the man, he stopped.

     "Excuse me, ma'am," he stepped past her and continued on his way.

     Maya sighed, hid her face in her hands, I'm going insane.  He was just heading to the same restaurants I am.  She shook her self and started walking again.

     Ranma was enjoying sparring with Nabiki, he appreciated all the effort she'd gone to, to make it interesting.  She'd advanced, attacking with fists, open-hand strikes, kicks and sweeps, left-right, high-low.  None of it really took much effort to dodge, but she was sneaky enough, that she kept trying something a little different, an insult, a distraction, a thrown marble, all of it gave him the first decent workout he'd had in weeks.  He thought Shinji and Rei throwing stuff at both of them, was going a little far, especially if they hit Nabiki, he lost.  So he had to protect someone he was fighting.  That made him really push himself, since he couldn't attack the other two.  What surprised him, was that she never acted like she got hit, then attacked.  It might have worked, but she never tried it.  Of course that didn't stop her from 'bowing to the Emperor', and yelling about monsters, or worst, saying Maya had our lunch.

     That was dirty, he smiled as he thought of it, And it almost worked.

     In a way, it felt like what was going on in the `real` world.  Someone randomly throwing things at them, people he couldn't touch or counter.  He remembered asking Asuka about the AT-field, and her laughter at the thought of anyone generating one without an EVA, 'They'd be some kind of monster' she'd assured him.  That worried him, when he'd explained why he was asking, she'd laughed at him again, 'Another of Raccoon's tricks.'

     He'd play that kind of trick on Ranma, Ranma thought, But he wouldn't do that to Ranko.  But he had no way of convincing Asuka of that.

     He didn't want to talk to Rei, he still hadn't figured out what he'd done, to make her so mad.  He'd even accused her of holding a grudge, and she didn't do anything, except stare at him some more.


     Ranma found himself hanging from the ceiling, shivering with cat-fear, looking down at Rei, who was catching the marble she'd just bounced off him.  Ranma let go of the ceiling and dropped next to her, "That's not fair."

     "Maya has the food," she walked out of the room.  Shinji shrugged, and walked after her.

     "Why didn't you notice she was sneaking up on you?" Nabiki was mystified.

     Ranma was sheepish, "I didn't know she was there.  That trick with the . . . that sound, it was so realistic.  I never knew she could be so sneaky."

     "You're just lucky all she had was a marble, if she'd had a knife," Nabiki suggested, "She could have slit you open."

     That's a distinct possibility, Ranma thought.  "Maybe I should apologize."

     "Why?" Nabiki asked, smiling, "What did you do wrong now?"

     Ranma frowned, which made her smile more.  "Whatever made her so mad," Ranma explained.

     "I think if she was really mad, she would have hit you.  I think she's just protecting Shinji," Nabiki suggested, "Leave him alone, and you'll find your problems go away."

     Makes sense, Ranma thought, She got mad when I fought Shinji, and again when I looked in on them.  Ranma considered avoiding Shinji altogether for a few days, what really worried him, was that Rei, and not Nabiki, had come up with that tactic, and she could have easily killed him, and from her expression, she knew it too.  More cat practice, he thought, setting out his lessons for tonight's dreams, while he followed Nabiki to get showered and eat.

     Admiral Simson examined the new equipment: acoustic detectors, and mortars.  The plan was simple, when they heard the popping of mortar fire, their mortars would return fire, unless their enemy was ready to fire one volley and abandon their mortars, they'd catch a return round.

     "No chance of that mortar-plotting radar I've heard the Army bragging about?" Simson asked Colonel Stedman, who was also inspecting the positions, most of the mortar crews were Marines.

     "It isn't reliable yet, 'Give us a few months', and if it's unreliable, well, nobody's that happy with the idea of us tossing a few mortar rounds into their neighborhood.  But nobody's willing to complain to our faces, considering what happened to the pilots," Stedman replied.

     "Is there anything we haven't done?" Simson asked.

     "Yeah, send the kids to tank school, I think that's the only way we're going to be able to transport them for a while," Stedman suggested, "Make sure they know how to drive them, so if the driver gets hit, they can get out."

     "Pershings or Chaffees?" Simson asked.

     "Chaffees, fast, light, more maneuverable.  Plus, I think having them load the 75 mm, is easier than trying to load the 90 mm main gun the Pershing uses."

     "Let them tear up the landscape a little, shoot at a few things," Simson considered, "I may take the Coral Sea out to a gunnery range, and run through a few hundred 5 inch shells, get the gunners trained up."

     "It couldn't hurt, with the Honolulu arriving next week, we could probably survive with less coverage."  Stedman considered the positioning of the detectors, and the counter-battery mortars, "I saw a lot of stuff as a mud Marine in China, and in Burma.  We didn't just fight the Japanese.  Whoever did this, was a real pro, he's got us showing exactly how we'll react.  Whatever he does next, will be a complete surprise."

     "Assuming it isn't a she," Simson paused, "Why do I have to think of these things?  At least the pilots only seem interested in each other.  A bunch of active teenagers putting their lives on the line, can you imagine a simpler target?"

     "As you said, fortunately, they only have eyes for the other pilots, or Kaji.  As if we can trust the head of NERV Security," Stedman laughed.

     "The grand high FUBEN himself," Simson growled, "I wouldn't trust that smarmy bastard, as far as I could throw an EVA."

     "They're bait?!" Misato angrily demanded, she glared at Commanders Fuyutsuki and Ikari, Ritsuko had the air of someone who'd argued this over and over, and lost each time.

     Misato noticed none of the American Military, were at this little staff meeting.

     "We'll spread them out in different parts of the building," Gendo assured her, "The building itself can survive several hits.  And it will provide them good protection.  Besides, they'd have to launch their attack from inside NERV property, and we have Security patrols covering anywhere such a strike team could possibly set up.  We need to draw them out."

     "I doubt this has full approval," Misato argued.

     "I think, Captain, you'll find it has," Gendo steepled his fingers and stared at her.

     "It does," Ritsuko admitted, "I checked when I first heard about it.  Direct from Washington, went over the Admiral's head."

     "Somebody should tell them that," Misato countered.

     "The orders state, that it will be handled through their channels," Fuyutsuki seemed confident as well.

     This entire situation sat wrong in Misato's mind, one more question would make it complete, "I suppose we aren't supposed to tell the pilots either."

     "That is correct.  We must do nothing to alarm our quarry," Gendo told her firmly.  "And you must do nothing to interfere or alarm the pilots.  Our quarry is delicate and easily frightened."

     "Yes, sir," Misato growled.  She knew the meeting was over, she knew she wouldn't be allowed to see the Children until they were in danger again.  Would throwing empty beer cans at the Admiral from the top of the medcenter be considered 'interfering?'.  She walked out to find out.

     Gendo noted the glare from Dr. Akagi as she left, it didn't matter.  SEELE only wanted one of the pilots.  They would return that pilot unharmed, in a month.  If Ikari agreed, the harassment would stop.  He and Fuyutsuki had decided the risk, while high, was acceptable.  The risk of losing one pilot, versus all of them, was too great.

     "Do you believe them?" Fuyutsuki asked the question he hadn't brought up in their earlier argument, or during the screaming match with Dr. Akagi.

     "Of course not, but we can at least discover what they desperately want Saotome for," Gendo told his colleague, "And who the traitor is."

     Fuyutsuki nodded, and left his friend alone.  Both prayed this would work.

Capitulation to the Inevitable

     Rei stood atop the medical building, she had wanted to be alone.  The visitors had become wearying and wearing.  She enjoyed Shinji-kun, but the others and their false mannerisms, she could do without.  Breathing was still difficult, but she would heal soon.  Now the time would come that a solution would present itself.  She couldn't resolve the hurricane of emotions and distracting thoughts that warred within her mind.

     Sometimes she longed for what she had known before the others had arrived, other times longed for their companionship.  It was something she was having great difficulty dealing with.

     She looked over the edge of the medical center, a dozen stories down to the half-filled concrete parking lot below.  As she looked down, she came to a conclusion, that actions often solved the problems of thoughts.

     She stepped off the edge of the building, enjoying the feeling of air rushing past her, marveling at the ease with which she directed her fall.

     "So, Asuka," Shinji recited the lines and tone he'd practiced, "How are you feeling?"

     Probably doesn't want to get yelled at for 'Being a wimp,' Ranma mused, Like the last time we visited Asuka.  And what's up with Rei, she actually told us to leave?

     "I like being above ground," Asuka admitted.  Shinji mentally sighed, it had worked.

     "Can someone open the curtains?  I'm sick of not being able to look outside."

     "You just want to look down on the little people," Nab-chan entered Asuka's hospital room.

     "At least I'll admit it," Asuka tossed back.

     Ranma skirted the impending fight, and pulled the curtain aside.  He froze at the sight of the creature hovering outside the window.  It raised the staff it was carrying.

     "Down!" Ranma yelled, he braced himself to take the blast, there was no time to get the others under cover.

     A blue streak landed on the creature from above.  The bolt it fired, burned through the window and set the ceiling on fire.  Ranma ran from the room, shouted "Fire!" at some of the guards.

     He needed something, if his idea was going to work, "I'm really guessing," he admitted, but he didn't see he had much of a choice.

     Rei's kicks smashed the organ that allowed the byakhee to travel through interstellar space, but the effort had exhausted her.  She knew the creature was climbing into thinner and thinner upper airs.  Soon, she would lose consciousness, her only solutions were to kill the creature, or allow it to discover it couldn't get off the planet.  Both were likely to end her life.  She didn't want to die, she had taken a reasonable chance, to protect all the pilots.  She'd saved them, her only regret, was there was no one to save her.
     Ranko ran up the stairs to the roof.  The cold water had probably been unnecessary, but she wasn't taking any chances.

     "Look," she said to Jeff's walking stick, "Rei's important to him, he won't be happy if we let her die, right?" she smiled, I'm trying to be charming to a stick, this is ridiculous.  "I'm not asking for me.  I think he'd do it if he could."

     She reached the roof, held the stick and carefully sat down on it, "I don't know what you can do, but you dooooOOOOOOO . . . "  Ranko's scream Doppler-shifted on the flight away from the roof of the medcenter.

     Ranko found that the handgrip was large enough for her to brace her feet against, she'd wrapped herself around the rest of the dark wood and brass missile.

     "I hope you know where you're going!" she shouted at her steed, she didn't get an answer, and she hardly expected one.  She looked forward, the wind making her eyes tear.  What she could make out, was that there wasn't just one of the things, there were dozens.  Ranko smiled, byakhee were armored, lacked any specific weak point, but they could be affected normally, and they were in the air, her specialty.  One hand held the handgrip, the other farther down the stick to give her leverage, as she hung beneath it, "Let's get'em!"

     The Dragon saw the veritable cloud of byakhee, and silently thanked the Universe for providing such a tasty supper, then he saw the Iron Horse attacking, aboard the Staff of Kavon.  He decided to ignore the seeming impossibility, and do what he could to assist.  Only the Iron Horse's unbelievable speed let her kicks land as they streaked past.  Kicking a byakhee a dozen times as she passed, reduced the creature to a morsel for the Dragon to snap up.  The target was the Little One, the Iron Horse was on her way to rescue her.

     Well?! the Dragon could be patient, he was not maneuverable enough to rescue the girl himself.  But he'd played Catch often enough.

     Ranko was within a few dozen feet of Rei, and still closing.  Dozens of the creatures had fallen, she had smashed through them.  The lightning bolt then caught her unawares.

     She tried to hang on, the pain wouldn't make her let go, but they designed the bolt to make human muscles spasm.  She watched the walking stick climb away, she knew it was really her.  She was falling, and the thinness of the air told her she was extremely high.  Thin enough to have rendered Rei unconscious.

     All that meant, was she had a long time to consider what she'd done wrong.  Maybe the stick would realize she was gone, and come for her, but would she, and it, be able to get back up and save Rei?  She also wondered if her/his ability to survive falls, would include one from thousands of meters up.

     She landed on something way too early, then something blacked out the sky.

     "Feather Merchant!  Get back in th'game!" something rasped loudly, from very close.

     Ranko found she was now going up, very much faster than she had been going down.  She risked a glance over her shoulder, and saw only a dark hole in the sky.  A hole that moved on dark wings.  She waited until she was above the first byakhee, and struck down, with full force, smashing across the groups of flying creatures, closing in on Rei and the one holding her, she caught the walking stick as it went by.  "Where'd you go?" she asked angrily.

     She closed in, spotted the creature with the staff who had zapped her, "Shoot him, or something!" she ordered.  A blast from the tip of the stick blew the byakhee to fragments.  Ranko decided, in the future, to be a lot more careful about what she asked it to do.

     The one holding Rei, took one look, and dropped Rei to evade Ranko.  Suddenly the stick dragged her down after the plummeting girl.  Ranko pulled herself back onto the stick, gripping the handgrip between her feet, and the cane between her knees, to leave her hands free to grab the plunging form.

     "Little closer, little closer," she urged.  The closure rate slowed as they got close.  Ranko wanted to urge greater speed, then realized Rei could be seriously hurt, the earlier drop had already hurt her.  Great, I'm trusting a stick.  Why not?  It's probably done this before, went through her mind, as her hand closed on Rei's and she pulled her against her.  I hate magic, it gives me the creeps! She got a more solid grip on Rei and the stick.

     Ranko realized that as fast as they were slowing down, probably as fast as they could without hurting Rei further, they'd be underground before they stopped.  All her work, a last minute save, and all for nothing.  Ranko knew she might survive, but Rei's injuries would kill her, before Ranko could get her fellow pilot to medical attention.

     Again something blotted out the sky.  Ranko's ears popped as if she'd suddenly climbed a great distance, Rei moaned from the strain, then they were dropped.  Above the two girls, was a pebbly darkness, that smelled of death, reptile and lightning.  Below was the roof of the medcenter, and they were gently descending towards it.

     "If you aren't here when I get back, I was never here, agreed?" the huge Dragon told Ranko, as she landed with Rei, a moment later it was gone.

     Ranko found she was shivering, that creature was more frightening than any number of cats, and she realized it had been in Raccoon's room that night.  Ranko looked at Rei cradled in her arms, and the walking stick she was still sitting on.

     "Sorry," she pulled it free, "Thanks."  She considered the insanity of talking to a piece of wood and metal, and that she'd never felt that she'd been abandoned by it.  If Raccoon doesn't pull through, I can put it to use, she thought.  She carefully picked up Rei to return her to her room, she was still unconscious, but her breathing wasn't as labored as when Ranko had first gotten to her.

     Ranko kept glancing at the stick, as she returned it to Raccoon's room.  When she first saw it in there, she thought it was odd that the walking stick had been there, when Raccoon hadn't had it with him in the plug.  Ranko remembered the black and silver walking stick in the dream, it's affect on demons.

     "Idiot!" she told herself after she'd located some hot water, pouring it over her head.

     "It was only staring you in the face," he said.  Weapons weren't of use to the Martial Artist, someone could take it away.  Ranma could just imagine the carnage that would result in taking that stick away from Raccoon.  Heck, Raccoon would probably let someone steal it, then sit back and watch the mayhem, Ranma thought, then stopped, why did getting pounded into tofu by a heavy wooden object seem so odious?  "Probably that's how I got the head injuries," he answered, "I could have . . . Ranko could have just asked him to make one.  Everett taught me enough Savate, I could use a cane like that."  But you never asked, he chided himself.  He didn't want to be dependent on weapons, but there was a big difference between using something temporarily, and becoming dependent on it.  "No wonder they think I'm dumb," he admitted as he headed to where Asuka had been, he'd find out where they'd gone there.

     Ranma wandered the medcenter, heading generally towards Asuka's room.  He heard both Admiral Simson and Misato yelling, the Admiral in English, Misa-chan in Japanese.

     Well, at least they aren't yelling at each other, he thought as he approached, "Rei's back in her room," he announced, when neither seemed to notice him.

     The Admiral yelled something at a sergeant, and pointed at Ranma.

     "Come on, son," the sergeant began in halting Japanese, then said something Ranma didn't understand at all.

     Ranma didn't argue, from the looks on Simson's and Misa-chan's faces, nobody wanted to be around them right now.

     "Pilot Ayanami is this way," Ranma told the man, from his bewildered look, Ranma realized he had no idea what Ranma was saying, And my English is worse than that guy's Japanese, Ranma thought, "Ayanami," Ranma insisted, and pointed.

     The man nodded, and jogged after Ranma, pausing only to get a gurney to carry the girl on.

     Once they reached the elevator with Rei, the man told him 'NERV HQ' and something about moles.  Ranma figured he could wait, they loaded him and Ayanami into a weird looking army tank, and set off cross-country for the headquarters.

     Ranma sighed, Underground, again.  For how long? he wondered. He didn't really care.  Anywhere he could practice was good enough, except the phrase 'Practice Martial Arts in a cave' kept coming back, and the disappointment it implied.

     Ranma closed his eyes, then remembered, he'd forgotten Raccoon in all the excitement.  He told the sergeant, who pointed to him and Rei, and said something unintelligible.

     Ranma decided to wait, after all, with his faithful stick, Raccoon was better protected than the rest of them, It was so obvious, now, Ranma considered.  He'd heard Raccoon's snide comments about someone teaching him not to think, he was wondering if he was right, In every case, the answer's been right in front of me.  Raccoon's not afraid of those things, because he's got weapons.  He took a year to make those claymores, he probably got them chocked full of magic, 'But Martial Artists don't use weapons,' he thought sardonically, Well this one's going to start!  Until I can do it without.

     Then he considered, If I want to pay the price of learning how to do it without, he shook his head, his, Ranko's, `contract` with Raccoon required he get his grades up, but even with Nab-chan, Rit-chan and Maya-chan breaking their backs, he just didn't get it.  They could explain it five different ways, and he still couldn't understand it.  I'll never be able to keep up my end of the deal, and I'll lose the dream training too, he thought bitterly.  He wondered how he managed to get himself into these messes, as soon as he beat down one problem, a worse one sprang up.

     "Can't I ever get a break?" he asked an uncaring Universe.

Salutations from the Gloom

     Even the greeting he got in the `underworld` was a mixed one.  Nab-chan practically tackled him, burying her face in his chest and making his ribs creak with the hug.

     "I was so worried," then she turned, "What did you do?  What did you think you were doing?"

     Great, Nab-chan, make up your mind, do you want to kiss me or kill me? he thought, "I saw Rei hit that thing, I had to go help her."

     "With the place crawling with soldiers?  Why couldn't it be them?  Why do you boys have to put yourselves at risk all the time?"

     Ranma wanted to tell her it was who he was, but she'd already said that herself.  "What?  Next time I should take you with?  I had to do something.  I can't just stand around and - "

     "And let other people do their jobs?" Nab-chan shot back.

     Ranma debated telling her that unless they could fly, nobody could have done what he'd done, he decided against it, When she's like this, I just can't talk to her.  With that, he turned around and walked away, he just didn't want to fight with her.

     As he walked down the corridor, he got both sadder and madder.  He'd been uselessly lamenting that there was no technique only to 'trip over it,' the truth, "That's what the dream meant," he realized, Even my subconscious knew the answer, he thought.  If there wasn't a technique, there was a tool.  The EVAs were proof of that.  Rit-chan could do math in her head, if there was a Martial Arts math contest, she'd be the champ, but she still kept a slide rule.  He'd wanted to share his discovery with someone, he'd most wanted to share it with Nab-ch . . . Nabiki.  But instead, she acted like this.

     In a way, he felt sorry for her.  He could understand how she felt, even if it didn't explain why she felt it.  They'd had so much fun the last couple of days.  He didn't like why the change had happened, but he could appreciate that they could be together, practicing martial arts, even teaching Rit-chan a little.

     Nabiki was finally getting the simulator time she wanted, they'd even managed to spar a little in the EVAs.

     But that wasn't good enough for her, he thought sadly, It's never enough for any of the girls around here.  Never enough to simply be.  Rei wanted to be with Shinji, he could accept that, even if he never understood why.  Rit-chan and Maya-chan always squirreled themselves away studying something `fascinating`, even if it was just something boring.

     Misa-chan and Nab . . . iki had to control everything, if it didn't run on rails they set down, they got mad, he thought as he remembered hearing about Misa-chan blowing up at Asuka, it was just dumb.  Asuka did what she was supposed to, you might as well punish a reflex, she'd also done her duty, fought the enemy and protected people.  How she did it, shouldn't matter, Ranma thought as he walked through the empty corridors, walking without any real destination or goal.  The same with Nabiki.  I fought, I won, why couldn't she be happy about that? he wondered.

     He walked by the room they'd put Rei in, Shinji had found it before he had.  He was sitting in a chair, holding her hand, his head was lying on the bed next to her, because he'd fallen asleep.  Maybe that's why Rei spent time with him, girls liked that sissy, romantic stuff, he thought as he watched Rei staring at Shinji, tracing the whorls of his hair with her fingertip.

     Weird, was Ranma's opinion, as he walked on, quietly though, so not to disturb them.  Rei was another one with a mean temper.  He wondered where he was supposed to sleep tonight, wondered if he could relax enough to get to sleep.  Nabiki really had him wound up now, worse than the fall, worse than that dragon.

     Nabiki watched Ranma walk out, not storm out in a fury, not with a look of pity, but with a resigned sigh.  She felt her world crumbling further around her.  She needed security, everyone around her moving in predictable paths.  But what had been in Nerima bonds of fear and steel, were just gossamer here, mere shadows that anything could break, and real powers crashed through her life, her plans and schemes, as if they were nothing.  Irrelevance was something she'd never had to deal with.

     Moments after he was gone, she found the words, the pleas: 'I'm frightened and lonely,' 'You are all I have left and you impulsively risk yourself,' 'I love you, please don't leave me.'

     But when she rushed out, he was gone, and she didn't know to where.  So she returned to her room, more alone now.  She could have kept him with her, if she'd held her tongue, or fallen on her knees and cried as she said what she had said, or anything that even hinted at her true feelings, her true fear.  She knew fear, she used it, mastered it, so she thought.  But she was always the fear-maker, never the one who feared.  Not in this place.  When it was ancient monsters, she could rationalize that away.  When it was other kids, she could call up superior forces.

     But this latest attack, she wondered if anyone else realized the barrage was just playing with them.  All of them so terrified, but aside from Asuka and Nancy Thompson, not a scratch, it was a game: someone wanted the pilots, their `guardians` and their protectors to know they could reach out and strike them, whenever, wherever they wished.  There was no defense, no counter.  There was no one who could protect them, no power to shield them.  Her one attempt to get, what she'd hoped was that kind of power, had failed miserably, and the wielder of that power, was now more helpless than she was.

     "A no-win situation," she admitted, looked around the room, a bed, bare concrete walls, Even Rei's apartment had more personality, spoke more of 'home' than this place.  But you don't get a choice when you get thrown in a cell, she sighed, she was trapped here, trapped in this place and time, and she was going to have to get used to it.

     Belldandy had promised, promised her, that the means to protect the pilots, Ranma especially, would be available.  She hadn't seen any, not any that would guarantee their survival.

     She stood up and walked out.  She needed to talk to someone about this, someone who'd actually listen, and not laugh at her.  There were only two people in the whole place that fit that description.  She'd start with the one who might actually be able to answer back.

     Rei was sleeping, her head next to Shinji's, his hand held in both of hers, as he slept in the chair next to her bed.

     Again the Universe conspires against me, she felt some jealousy at Rei and Shinji's easy familiarity, Ranma and Akane had been together for months, and could still misinterpret a two-word sentence.  Her other alternative wouldn't answer her, but maybe talking about it would help.

     She hated the gray pallor, it seemed like he was mocking her, he hovered near death, showcasing her helplessness for all to see.  She hated the bottles, needles and tubes, the oxygen tent, and . . . "Ranma?" she watched him stand guiltily, then put Raccoon's walking stick back in the bed where the other boy lay.

     "Did you - ?" Ranma said, "I'll be going I -"

     "Stay . . . please."  Swallow some of your infernal pride, she told herself, "You don't know much about my history, do you?"

     Ranma shook his head.

     "I want to apologize, for the way I acted, for what I said," she stared at the floor.  She'd never considered how much a sincere apology hurt, made her so vulnerable, and she was already so impotent.

     "My sister was engaged to a boy.  You are a lot like him, martial artists, all wrapped up in honor, no matter how much it hurt him.  I was so jealous of her, it hurt," she swallowed, wondered how much she should reveal.  "He was so beautiful, handsome and kind, wild and untamed.  A lot like you.  For reasons too stupid to go into, my sister broke off the engagement, she, my oldest sister, and my father, threw him out of the house, and made sure there was nowhere else in our whole town he could go."

     "That's their right, Nabiki.  You may not accept that, but this boy was honor-bound to accept that."

     "He was honor-bound, to commit suicide," Nabiki replied coldly, "Of my whole family, I was the only one who bothered to go look for him.  I guess, no, I know, I was the only one who actually cared for him."

     She paused, Ranma was silent, vaguely embarrassed by her words.

     She collected her thoughts, trying to sift through what she needed to say, and what she desperately had to keep from him, "Eventually I wound up here.  And you are so much like him, and then you are so careless of your health and safety, it's as if I'm just waiting for him to die, all over again."

     "I won't die," he told her.

     "You don't know that!" she shouted at his typical arrogance, as the barriers broke, "He died because of someone's thoughtless cruelty, and his sense of honor.  Our enemies are cruelty personified, and you've got the same futile sense of honor!"  She cut off his protest, "They'll kill you, and as long as you're facing the enemy, honorably, you won't care.  If Everett walked through that door, could you just dispassionately watch him go to his death again?"

     "I don't know," Ranma admitted, "What does 'dispassionately' mean?"

     Nabiki couldn't help herself, it was so typically Ranma, she started laughing, she laughed so hard she had to kneel down or fall over, she laughed until tears ran down her cheeks.

     Ranma was, again typically, mystified by her actions.  Somewhere along the line, he came over and just held her, murmuring inanities to get her to stop crying.

     "You stupid idiot," she said softly, "I'd lose you all over again, I just couldn't stand it."

     Ranma didn't react to her revelation as she cried and laughed.

     Admiral Simson was not laughing, "Lieutenant Commander, I don't care if he's asleep, I don't care if he's with his wife.  I need him on the line NOW!  If you don't get him, I'll see to it your permanent posting will be doing polar research, on arctic survival, are you hearing me, Mister?"  The admiral turned his attention away from the long-distance argument over the phone, to his aide, Captain Ramsey, bustling up.

     "They're all fine.  We got lucky, again.  What kind of stupidity - ?"

     "They had signed orders this time, from Washington, with specific instructions that we would be informed 'Through our own channels'," Admiral Simson told him, waiting for someone to pick up the other phone, "What do you want to bet, we'll never see those orders?"

     Ramsey nodded.

     "Go check on the defenses yourself," Simson ordered, "If they don't get your personal approval, get them aboard the Coral Sea, and head out to sea.  She and the South Dakota are already under orders to be ready to steam immediately.  If our enemies try again, they'll be facing a lot more than a few kids."  His attention returned to the phone, "I am Vice Admiral Simson, Task Force 7N, that's 7 November.  Now get him on the phone, Captain!"

     Ramsey realized he was dismissed, he headed out.

     Ramsey walked through the corridors of NERV HQ, the Marine and Army troops challenged him more often, as he approached where the Children were.  He didn't want to think about what kind of disaster they had avoided.  What he did want to know, is how.  From what he'd gathered, something tried to attack the pilots, Ayanami attacked it, then Saotome had disappeared, presumably to add his weight to the battle.  They must have won, because both were accounted for and uninjured.

     Ramsey was angry, he was a professional, if someone was messing with the chain of command, that professionalism could be used against him.  If what the Admiral had told him about the orders was true, then Gendo was an idiot, blindly following orders.

     Ramsey would have accepted court-martial before he followed those orders, Hell, I would have mutinied, before I followed those orders, he thought.

     The protection around the pilots was what he hoped it would be, he added that none of the guards was relieved until he, General Tomlinson, Admiral Simson or Colonel Stedman relieved them, personally, no written orders, no phone calls, no NERV orders.  It was ridiculous to assume that having been fooled once, they wouldn't be fooled again.  He was still tempted to load the kids and their `guardians` aboard some tanks, drive straight to the Coral Sea, and put a 10 mile exclusion zone around them.  Anything that didn't belong, would be fired upon, no questions, no apologies.  But the defenses were adequate, and he wasn't eager to add to the stress the kids were under.

     He was aware they needed some normalcy.  To that end, he considered `drafting` a few of their friends and their families, to form a stable group down here, and to diffuse the pilots.  If Katsuragi's earlier actions were any indication, dividing them up might be a good idea, or giving them the opportunity to be with others.

     He didn't like the idea that there wasn't an assigned Mother/Confessor and Father/Disciplinarian figure to each Children, it would make a whole lot more sense than two women, who'd apparently never had a long-term relationship, suddenly getting saddled with a flock of fractious teen-agers.  That would strain anyone, but it would be better with someone who had experience with the problems of raising a teen-ager, the psychology, the mood swings, etc.


     Gendo was not looking forward to this meeting, the monoliths this time, The actual committee members, Gendo thought.

     "What did you think you were doing?" Kehl quietly demanded.

     "I followed your instructions.  I didn't expect Rei would intervene," Gendo said, "I would not have expected her to move to defend Saotome."

     "That explains half of it," Kehl admitted, "The other girl, who spearheaded the attack, how do you explain her intervention?  She was reportedly, as formidable a combatant as Saotome."

     What are they talking about? Gendo wondered, he'd already gathered that Saotome had gone after Rei, for which he was grateful.  He hadn't the faintest idea who this `other` girl they were referring to was.

     Gendo started to explain, "You have the data on Tendo and Langley, and - "

     "It was not either of them!" SEELE Russia angrily told him, "You are holding information from us."

     They couldn't possibly . . . ? Gendo thought desperately, "And what did this mystery girl look like?  She could have been one of their classmates."

     "The Japanese rarely have red hair and blue eyes," newly promoted SEELE Japan commented.

     They couldn't not know about Saotome's curse!? Gendo was aghast, There's only one person at NERV with the clearance to know about it, who doesn't know.  Gendo forced himself to calm down.  He let the meeting continue, he was able to divert them with promises to investigate.  He was also aware of the message that they never mentioned, the agreement that he would surrender one pilot, for the safety of the others, and incidentally, his project.

     Commander Fuyutsuki was awaiting the outcome of the meeting.  Gendo practically ran out of the meeting room.

     "Where's Simson?" Gendo demanded.

     "High level discussions with his superiors," Fuyutsuki said, remembering the shouting he'd overheard.  High volume in any case.

     "Where?" Gendo insisted.

     He'd never seen Gendo this rattled, not since . . . "The medcenter," he suddenly realized who Gendo thought SEELE's next `harassment` was aimed at.

     "Come on!" Gendo broke into a jog.

     "Ikari!" Captain Ramsey hailed them.

     Fuyutsuki expected Gendo to evade their master's lap dog, instead, he headed directly towards him.

     "Contact the Admiral.  Get the Children out of here!  Get them to the South Dakota, the Coral Sea can follow once we've embarked the EVAs.  Surround that ship with every gun, plane and ship you need."

     Ramsey looked like he was going to ask a question, then changed his mind, "Get them ready to move, we will arrange transport.  Why the change?"

     "I have reason to believe the traitor is within this complex, within NERV or your guard force."

     Ramsey paled, nodded, and headed off.

     "Traitor?" Fuyutsuki was on the verge of panicking himself, "How?"

     "The committee didn't know who Ranko was," Gendo told him.

     Fuyutsuki came to the same conclusion Gendo had.

     Admiral Simson walked around Ayanami's apartment, making a mental note to get the girl better quarters, somehow.  One of the 'specials' awaited him.  The `man` wore the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer, and drew Navy pay as one.

     Simson wouldn't have bet a plug nickel it was male, he wouldn't have taken odds it was even human, despite its appearance.  Simson wondered if the idea of the 'Great American Melting Pot', extended that far.

     The `man` removed a dirty metal panel from the wall, "The workmanship is incredible.  Far better than the crude runes on the walls.  The geospacing alone - "

     "Please," Simson interrupted, "I can see you're impressed, so I should be.  What does it do, and how well?"

     "An easier question is what doesn't it do," he indicated the hundreds of tiny runes scratched in the concrete under the metal walls, they were filled with a silvery metal.

     "That doesn't mean anything to me."

     "Sorry, Admiral, this is such an elegant solution.  If a South Dakota-type spell - well you'd need five of them to guarantee one of the main turrets could even find the target, and if they fired, there's no guarantee the target would even be there when the shells arrived."

     "It's that powerful?" Simson was impressed.

     "No, that's the beauty of it.  Say a cubic foot of the best armor plate weighs a ton," the 'special' waited for the Admiral to nod, "That's too heavy for a man to carry.  However, a chunk with a cross-sectional area of 1 square inch, a person could carry say 20 feet of it.  A contact atomic bomb might get through twenty feet of armor, but nothing less.  The trick is, making sure that 1 inch square was always in the way of an incoming attack.  That's how this works."

     "So you could overcome this?"

     "A dozen mages, working three hours, could eventually get a spell or two through.  A hundred mages, working half-a-day, could eventually tear this apart.  Yet, I think about the second hour, a mob of Corsairs would drop so much napalm on them, they'd still be on fire when they arrived in Hell."

     The Admiral found something to smile about, for the first time in a few days, "Can you duplicate this?  In the other apartments?"

     "Of course, once you see how it's done, it's easy.  I think the creator intended it to be.  Duplicating it will be difficult, but more painstaking than impossible.  Like duplicating a fine watch, after someone builds the first one, it's a lot easier to build the second."

     "Good," the Admiral told him, "I want the other pilots' apartments covered.  This works against more mundane threats?"

     "Like mortars?" the 'special' asked, "They'd miss, but by how far?"

     "Admiral," the radio man entered, wearing his big backpack radio, he shivered visibly at being in the apartment, "Captain Ramsey is sending the Children to South Dakota.  He'll discuss it with you aboard Coral Sea, as they're embarking the EVAs.  They're sending them by helicopter, with a ground convoy as a decoy."

     Simson nodded, he'd hoped NERV would be able to provide adequate security, evidently, even with heavy reinforcements, they couldn't manage it.  And here, someone snuck in, and provided better protection then he would have believed possible.

     Nabiki lay down in the stretcher pod, they put the clear shield over her head.  The helicopters of 1947 looked like oversized dragonflies, without space even to seat two children in the cockpit, and all the machinery and framework hanging out in the open.  They strapped her in carefully, Asuka went in the other pod, because they had to balance the weight carefully.  Shinji and Ranma had already taken off, in another such dragonfly.  Looking up through the blades, there was a veritable cloud of fixed-wing aircraft covering the operation.  Rei and Raccoon were going in the last one.  She wondered what had caused the sudden frantic activity.  Another example of panic not actually doing anything, Nabiki thought.  She felt the copter lift off.  She wondered how reliable it was, how safe?  Then she laughed at that, considering how `safe` a picnic was, she was worrying about a rattletrap like this.  If they blew her out of the sky, it would be over in an instant, And Ranma would probably survive the fall.
     Admiral Simson sat with Gendo.  He could hardly believe that Gendo of all people, had pulled the plug on NERV protecting the pilots.  Neither was happy about the idea there was a traitor, and Gendo was hemming and hawing about how he knew.

     "Once they're aboard the South Dakota, we'll all feel better," Simson said, Nothing short of an Angel could get at them, and they would delay an Angel long enough to put the choppers down safely.

     "Did the convoy come under attack?" Gendo asked.

     He sounds worried, Simson thought, "No.  We either have the enemy with their heads down, or they didn't even try."

     Ramsey suddenly ran in, "Admiral, Commander - they bailed out."

     "WHAT!!!?" Simson and Gendo demanded.

     "They jumped out of the helicopters, all of them!"

     "Can you locate the bodies?" Simson asked, he'd failed, done his absolute best, and still he'd failed.

     "The chase planes scoured the area, one actually set down the last place they were seen, the crew found nothing."

     "That's impossible," Gendo said.

     "The elements of the convoy's security force, are combing the area, so are the police, civilian volunteers, nobody has found anything."

The Variform Pack

     Shinji looked around the clearing, at the trees surrounding them, and the darkness beyond.  They had taken off in daylight, now, not even the stars were visible above them.  He had never been so frightened in his life.  Ayanami was padding across the clearing towards him on all fours, as she approached she let out a high-pitched yowl, it wasn't the roar of a tiger, but wasn't a friendly sound.

     Raccoon and Nabiki-san were there, as was Ranma.  None of them seemed better able to deal with Ayanami than he was, Ranma looked absolutely petrified.  Ayanami yowled at them all, looking from one to the other, as if picking a target.

     "Ayanami-san," Shinji said.  He hoped it was a soothing tone, "It's all right, it's just us."

     She sprang in answer to his words, toppling him instantly.  He rolled into a ball trying to protect his face and vitals from an attack.  The attack didn't happen.  She merely stood on all fours over him, pushing him around with her head, yowling at Nabiki-san and Raccoon.

     "Don't move," Nabiki-san urged, "I don't think she's trying to hurt you."

     "She's playing with you," she added quietly.

     Shinji watched the pair circling, giving Ayanami two targets.  Ranma still hadn't moved.

     "Saotome, get in the - " Raccoon was interrupted by Ayanami hurling herself at him.  She bowled him over and hit him head first in the solar plexus, stunning him.

     Nabiki-san charged, and Ayanami leapt.  Ayanami caught Nabiki-san's hand, and bit down.  Nabiki-san shouted in anger and pain, chopping down on Ayanami's neck.  She held on for a few seconds, then released the other girl.  Nabiki-san staggered back a few steps, then fell.  Ayanami sauntered back to Shinji, she playfully knocked him over again.  Shinji froze as she ran her face over his neck, making a rattling sound in her throat.  She only stopped when Nabiki-san regained her feet.  Ayanami yowled at her, Nabiki-san's answering roar was deeper, and full-throated.  Nabiki-san walked toward Ayanami and Shinji, she took up a defensive crouch over him, yowling at Nabiki-san, who roared back.

     When Raccoon started sitting up, that broke the deadlock.  Both charged him, a moment later he flopped down next to Shinji.  When Raccoon tried to sit up, Ayanami planted her hand in the middle of his chest and yowled right in his face.

     "Nice puma," he said soothingly.  Ayanami seemed to relax slightly, she still yowled again, but nowhere near as loud, or as angrily.

     Shinji was still confused, more so when Nabiki-san clumsily shoved Ranma on top of the other two.  Ayanami yowled angrily at Ranma, who froze, and Nabiki, who roared back.  The two exchanged yowls and roars for a little while.

     Shinji looked around in fear.  He didn't understand any of this.  "Where's Asuka?" he asked.  Silence followed the question.  As Ayanami and Nabiki-san looked around.  Shinji mentally kicked himself, if she were free, she could do something.

     "Ranma?" Shinji asked, "Saotome-san?  Can't you do something?"

     "I don't think he's still with us." Raccoon looked around, tried raising his head and was yowled and roared back into a supine position.  "I'm not moving either."

     "Ayanami-san, what happened to her?" Shinji asked desperately, "Where's Security, the helicopters?  Maybe if we could get her to Akagi-sensei - "  The name earned him another yowl, right in his face.

     "Shinji-san," Raccoon said, "Don't aggravate Rei-puma.  I like my face the way it is, and my internal organs on the inside."

     "What are you idiots doing?" Asuka's voice came out of the darkness, beyond the trees, "Get up like men, and do something!"

     "Uh, Nabiki-bear and Rei-puma can wipe the floor with either of us," Raccoon called back, "I'd run back to headquarters, if I were you."

     "Run Asuka!" Shinji shouted.

     "Baka!  There's nothing else out there!" she shouted back.  Ayanami began circling around her from one direction, Nabiki-san from the other.

     "Stay away from me!" Asuka made shooing motions at Ayanami, then balled her fist getting ready to hit either of the girls, who were growling as they approached.

     "If you like your hand, don't hit either of them." Raccoon watched the tableau.

     Shinji tried to rouse Ranma, with Ayanami a dozen feet away, he had some success.  "We have to save Asuka!"

     Ranma tried to stand, but froze halfway up, as Ayanami yowled at him, from 10 meters away.  "I, I can't . . .."

     "Asuka, don't fight them!" Shinji shouted, "I don't think they're trying to hurt you!"

     "I can't do nothing!" Asuka was fending off both of the other girls now, who were growling and yowling, as if arguing, "I'm not you!"

     "What can we do?" Shinji looked around desperately.

     "What do you know about big cats and bears?" Raccoon asked, sitting up slowly.

     "Uh, they're mammals, the parents hunt alone, the - " Shinji recalled.

     "That's it, solitary hunters, humans are pack hunters."  He got to his knees, both girls growled at him, "Come on Shinji-san, they can't kill both of us."

     "But they can kill one of us?!" Shinji said, then stood and followed, "What do we do?"

     "Primate grooming rituals," Raccoon suggested, as the pair approached the pair of feral girls.

     "What are they?" Shinji asked.

     "I'll show him," Asuka volunteered as she sidled around Ayanami, who couldn't decide to track Asuka or Shinji.

     Nabiki-san roared at Raccoon, who still approached.

     "Like this, baka." Asuka carefully picked through Ayanami's hair, "Look for burrs, bracken, parasites, anything that doesn't belong there."

     Shinji started duplicating Asuka's careful movements.  Jeff was doing the same to Nabiki-san.  Both of the feral girls seemed confused by the change in behavior.  Ayanami whirled to face the pair, yowled at them.

     "Keep going," Asuka urged.

     Probably to keep her own nerve from failing, Shinji thought.

     The tiger looked down, it should have been the leader, except the two females fought over the wolf.  He was disgusted.  The bear and the coyote had left to act as a diversion.  Neither understood the clarity of a head-on attack, strength against strength.  Maybe if they were stronger.
     The High Priest watched his senior acolytes.  The spell had gone horribly wrong, now they were trying to discover exactly what had happened, at least they weren't getting swamped with Army soldiers and Marines, like the last time they'd tried the ritual.

     "We should get away from here.  Analyze our . . . miscalculation at another location," the most senior whined.

     "This location is secure," the priest said angrily, he suspected the acolyte merely wanted to feed his belly.

     "What is that racket?" the priest demanded.

     "The neighborhood dogs," a lower level acolyte replied, too junior to be anything other than cannon fodder, if they were raided.  He was delighting in the confusion among his seniors.

     The sound was getting louder, that meant closer, or more dogs.  The priest was getting worried, enough troops or vehicles would agitate the local animals, so would a number of other things.  Some of them could have been attracted by the failed spell.

     General Tembris handed the binoculars to his chief wizard, as the pair sat in a tree near the cultists `invincible` hideout.  "The wards are down?" Tembris asked.  The wizard nodded, smirking at the ease with which they had located and disrupted the plans of this pack of morons.  Both disliked having to save them this way, but the last thing either needed was for all the pilots to go 'splat' because a pack of stupid fools couldn't control a simple spell.  "I appreciate your sense of humor."

     "Thank you, sir.  If you're going to do something, a little artistry eases the disappointment of not letting them go their way."

     Tembris nodded his agreement.

     "There, sir," the wizard pointed, and handed the binoculars back to the General, who focused them on the veritable cloud of canines advancing.  Then turned, and saw groups of feral cats following the lion.  "They're quite predictable, sir, aren't they."

     Tembris nodded and settled in to watch the show, he needed to know more about the others, before he took on his real enemies here.

     The dogs ran on ahead.  Coyote could smell the unnaturalness here.  The dogs had better noses, it hadn't taken much promoting, Coyote was actually disappointed how easy it was, no real hurdle for his talents.  The bear was out there, she was staying downwind, no need to distract his `army`, she'd make herself known.  All he had to do, was stampede them to the others, it would be a great game.
     "They are getting closer," the priest concluded, "Prepare to leave!" he commanded.  Then the doors burst open and dogs poured in like a barking wave.

     Cultists scattered in all directions, they sought the power of the infinite, and feared simple animals.

     Many fled the small collection of shacks, to the nearby woods, there they heard the howls of something far larger than dogs.

     The tiger watched the two legs running up the slope towards them.  The two females and the wolf were back from the ridgeline, with the small army of cats.  Let those barking fools drive the quarry straight to the waiting line.  They would have their pick of targets, and he and the barking dogs, would close the trap behind the two legs.  He was disgusted at the maneuverings, but he waited as the first of the enemy came close.

     The tiger couldn't wait any longer, he roared and sprang.

     Tembris packed away the binoculars.  "We have what we wanted."  Several of the dogs were sniffing their way towards him.  The idiots hadn't feared the dog pack, he knew better.  A mind was controlling them, directing them, one nearly as good as he was.  It wouldn't do to get caught before he was ready.  He watched the mage banish their scent from the tree and from their trail.  The dogs would never track them now.

Dragon in Antarctica

     The Dragon landed, shook the ice and snow from its wings and body.  In Japan it was near summer, here it was entering the depths of winter.  An unprotected human wouldn't last more than a minute in that cold and wind, even he was uncomfortable.

     Then go inside, you fool, he told himself.  But there was something intimidating about the place, ancient as he was, in human terms, he had been birthed long after the last real work had been done on this city.  His memories could be measured in millennia, but this place was easily 10,000 times older.

     I hope they built to last, the creature folded his wings against his body, and proceeded through the corridors.  That too was intimidating, even in the modern cities of the United States, there were thoroughfares and main streets his massive form wouldn't fit into.  Here, in a relatively minor walkway, he could have walked with wings extended, and touched neither of the opposite walls.  If I wanted the heat loss, the Dragon reminded himself.

     'There's always something bigger and better than you are,' This place is proof of that, boy, the Dragon remembered the long arguments about discretion, there was also something else that repelled him, something inherently unclean about this place.

     The Elder Things had been a great power once, this massive city, and dozens of others dotting the globe, were all part of a minor colony.  Even the Cthulhi were forced to come to terms with them here.  Then 800 million years ago, wars annihilated half their race, wars among themselves, and between them, the Elder Gods and the Outer Gods/Great Old Ones.

     The humans could have taught them that lesson.  Strength is no defense against complacency.  The Russians, British and Americans had, by any rational measure, an insuperable advantage over Germany, Italy and Japan.  Yet the Axis had stood a hair's breadth away from taking the world to a very dark place, because of the timidity and stupidity of prewar `leadership`.  The Elder Things had learned that their power didn't let them stand by neutrally.  While the end of their galaxies spanning nation, had taken longer than all of recorded human history, to those ancient and long-lived beings, it must have seemed like the blink of an eye.

     A shoggoth sensed his distraction, and challenged him.

     Fool, the stomach churned and he blasted forth the unearthly darkness that was his breath weapon.  Not fire, lightning or cold, to which shoggoths were almost immune, but something out of the deepest human nightmares, And some such things would char all but a Great Old One, the dragon thought as he examined the dead shoggoth, that had learned that in the last second of its existence.  The Library, the Dragon read the runes that adorned nearly every wall.  Odd pentagonal patterns of holes, This place has the most philosophical graffiti I've ever read, the Dragon turned away from what he could feel was this abandoned city's dark heart, to learn if anyone had bothered to record what that dark heart was.  Or had it taken even these ancient and wise beings before they could defend themselves, And when I do figure it out? the Dragon wished the boy, or better yet, the entire Council was here, he was a warrior, a killing machine, not a scientist or researcher, Well, you are today.

     He considered the others, the Little One, did even she realize the web of desperate expectation and once-forlorn hope she was enmeshed in?  Probably why she's so depressed.

     And poor Langley, the very pinnacle of what the human race could aspire to, he wished he could help her more, but he suspected her tribulations would be necessary.  He snickered at the thought of the boy, "Drop him in Hell, and he'd be running the place, from the shadows, in a month.

     The thought of the Little One's paramour brought a laugh of booming mirth, "They have no idea."  He smothered the thoughts of amusement, with thoughts of the Iron Horse.  Pity rarely touched his frigid heart, but even the boy hadn't been twisted like the Iron Horse, those who'd tried to destroy the boy made no pretense to cover their destructive impulses.  Not so the Iron Horse, the signs were all there, if you cared to look.  Maybe saving him and Tendo would finally save the boy.

     The Dragon shook his head, "Another enemy, time and need deny me," he rasped angrily.

     Ritsuko Akagi walked through the cultists' little meeting place, she entered the one little shack where Gendo and Fuyutsuki were pouring over the notes and manuscripts that the cultists had left behind.  The cultists had been no help.  Even under truth serum, they kept assuring the U.S. and NERV troops, they didn't know how their spell had gone awry.

     "Anything?" she asked, as that crazy coyote tore through the shack, separating itself from its pursuers.

     "None, so far," Gendo looked after the animal, and frowned.

     Ritsuko stepped outside, and wondered if they were going to need a menagerie, or if anyone could housebreak bears and tigers.  As a platoon of Marines and Army took after the yipping coyote, they drove it straight into the arms of another platoon.  There were crashes and thuds, and the coyote came streaking out.

     There's a cartoon in there somewhere, Ritsuko thought.  She glanced through the vehicle park of trucks and jeeps, at the radio truck, the tallest structure around, and Captain Ramsey, sitting atop it, carefully petting the red and black tiger.  Nobody had been eager to tangle with an 800 lb. Tiger.  Especially after what the bear had done, a brave, clever soldier, had shot the bear with a tranquilizer gun.  They'd had to sedate the soldier to get the rifle out of his throat, where the bear had shoved it, sword swallower-style.

     Maya had easily solved, what Ritsuko would have thought, would be one of their most difficult captures.  Her assistant lay on the back seat of a command car, wearing a still-breathing puma-skin rug.  I'll have to remember to let Maya handle Rei's medical testing from now on, Ritsuko remembered that the big cat has struck at her, barely missing, On purpose, she knew now, at the time it had been quite a shock, that her antipathy for Rei was reciprocated.

     The lion stalked around the camp, examining everything, with an air of disgust.  The wolf had crawled under the command car Maya was in, and went to sleep, or so it seemed.  Except the ears and nose twitched when anyone got close.

     Colonel Stedman approached her, pulling bracken from his hair, and brushing the dust off his uniform, "I didn't think coyotes could climb trees."

     She smirked at that, then ducked as the bear roared in anger, and turned over a truck.  "Leave her alone!" Ritsuko shouted, "Just keep an eye on her!" Ritsuko shook her head.  She'd often wondered how people would act, with all their masks removed.

     The coyote ran between her legs, she turned just in time to see a few of the less maneuverable soldiers, coming straight at her.  Their expressions would have been comical, except . . .

     "Davis!  I am going to skin you alive!" she shouted from under the pile.  As she climbed free, she saw that the tiger had jumped down from the radio truck to assist.

     Oh no! she finished disentangling herself, with no concern where she shoved with her hands or feet, as the tiger loped over. She noted that Admiral Simson arrived with Misato and Kaji, the two looked three sheets to the wind, with clothing disheveled.  She wondered if she wanted to know where the angry Admiral found the pair.  The coyote danced just outside the tiger's range, then he charged the tiger's hindquarters.  The tiger had lost none of Saotome's incredible speed and maneuverability, but it was a 400 kilogram, 2.5 meter long creature, against a 2.5 foot long, 40 pound creature.  In terms of close-in maneuvering, physics barely won out over Saotome's vastly superior skill.  Most importantly, the tiger misjudged his opponent's target, as he got his tail and legs' hamstrings out the coyote's reach.  So the coyote darted underneath, and got the tiger's . . . undivided attention.

     Ritsuko nearly laughed at the look of bugeyed surprise on the face of the tiger.  Only the coyote's lashing tail could be seen from under the huge cat.  You also forgot what a dirty fighter you were facing, didn't you, Saotome? Ritsuko wondered what they were going to do now.

     "Davis!" Admiral Simson ordered, "Let him go!  Now!"

     Tail down, ears flattened back, the coyote pulled back, the tiger spun on his small tormentor.

     "Saotome!" the tiger froze at the Admiral's voice, "Go back to the truck!"

     After failing to stare down the Admiral, the tiger turned with the air of one reminded of what he had in mind the entire time.  He ambled back to the radio truck and leapt atop it, landing without a sound, except the protest of the truck's springs.

     "Where do you think you're going?" the Admiral asked.

     The coyote had been trying to sneak away, now it turned to face them with an expression of aggrieved innocence.

     "Get over there and apologize for all the trouble you've been causing."  The Admiral pointed at Ritsuko and the four platoons of infantry he'd been running ragged for half an hour.

     The coyote was a picture of abject misery, tail between his legs, head down, ears flat.  The lion roared, she shook herself and sat down, watching expectantly.

     'Anybody cuffs that coyote, is dealing with me,' interesting, Ritsuko glanced at the others, for signs of interest in their colleague's downfall.  The tiger watched from above, lashing his tail.  For the others, it was of momentary interest.

     The coyote sat in front of her, tail wagging, looking hopeful.

     "Teenagers occasionally need to have their chain yanked, or they think you don't care."  Admiral Simson glanced with distaste at Misato and Kaji.

     Ritsuko nodded, she patted the coyote's head, "Go wait with Shinji," she said sternly.  The coyote slunk over to the command car, and climbed under.  Peeking around the rear tire at her.  Ritsuko understood that despite that the body and mind were different, the personalities remained the same.  She considered the relationships and insights.

     Gendo approached from the shack, "I think that at sunrise, the spell will be broken."

     Ritsuko looked at the starlit sky, then to the pilots, I hope so.

Body Bag

     Ranma pulled the blanket tighter around his restored human form, and watched the battle.  It was a purely physical contest, he would have been excellent at it, except he didn't understand the nuances of the moves, and an ignorant battler would . . . be unwelcome to say the least.  But the fight was life and death, so he couldn't walk away.

     Head tipped back, Asuka's lips met Raccoon's, and she exhaled, "Breathe!  Dammit!"

     Nab-chan had both hands on his breastbone, shoving down with rhythmic thrusts, "One, two, three, four, five."

     On 'Five' Asuka would repeat the odd kiss, then check Raccoon's pulse.  Nab-chan would never pause her strange action, even when it dislodged the blanket she'd been covered with, when she'd regained her human form.

     Ranma thought she'd been attacking Raccoon, after he collapsed.  Especially after he heard her popping his ribs with this, but Asuka had rushed over to help.

     "Clear," Rit-chan ordered, waited until Nab-chan pulled her hands away, then shoved a needle in Raccoon's chest, pumping all the contents of a big syringe into him.

     Asuka and Nab-chan switched places, and began the ritual again, Asuka crushing his chest to a rhythm, and Nab-chan breathing for him.

     Shinji and Rei also stood and stared from the sidelines, both wearing U.S. Army coats, they held hands, glanced at each other, then returned their attention to the battle.  Ranma could see Asuka and Nab-chan were losing, whatever they, and Rit-chan were trying, it wasn't working.  All three were nearly exhausted, and he didn't know enough to take over and let them rest, and this wasn't magic or Mythos monsters, it was as physical and precise as a kata, and evidently required even less skill, but it was a skill he didn't have.

     Another needle, I hate needles, he thought, he wanted to tell them to go away, another breath, equally useless.  In another context this might have been laughable, Nabiki's unashamed nakedness, Asuka wearing only a jacket that she hadn't bothered to button, both sweat-soaked, flushed and panting.  Except all he really wanted was to tell them to go away, he'd be fine.  Arrogant stupidity, he thought, listening to his friends and people he cared about fighting a battle he knew they'd lose.  Then he'd be back, hale and hearty, making a mockery of their pain and efforts.  That was the real nature of the curse, yes it gave him effective immortality, but it also exposed people to this.  At least when he'd been shot, they left the body there, he'd had time to recover, and walk out without having to explain how.

     "That's it," he heard Doctor Akagi lament, "Mark the time.  I don't know what we're going to tell his family."

     Don't tell them anything just yet, he implored as they moved his body from the ground to a stretcher.  A maudlin thought occurred to him, What would happen if I were cremated?  Would the little pieces of dust all crawl back together at the end?  As the skin and muscle and ribs were doing now, he hoped it didn't show outside, or attract attention.  The nature of his curse was not one he wanted to share with others, `immortality` was not all it was cracked up to be, lying on a cloth stretcher watching the lightening sky pass over head, passing through the ambulance doors, and the ITCH, as the tissues healed.

     The worst was the sounds.  Some of his more deluded classmates lamented that it would take death for anyone to pay attention to them, that if they just died, then people would feel sorry.  Sorry, been there, done that, you did everything you could to avoid hurting people you really cared about this way.  Listening to people you worked with, and cared about reacting to the news, Well it is a curse after all.  If it was a gift you'd go to sleep and wake up without all the memories of coming back together and people reacting to it.  And his `friends` wondered why he was odd, Maybe I should just tell them.  Yes, an ancient god cursed me to 'Live until the Last Days, but not to see the end of them.'  Oh, I already did, and they didn't believe me. Doing it again would go over like a bag of wet cement, if he didn't spend the rest of his existence in a lab somewhere, probably in pieces, then he'd never have people treat him, except as a monster.

     The ride to the medcenter was a quiet one.  Getting loaded into a sack was an ignominy he could have done without, he wanted to be able to see where he was going.  The cold metal and the sensation of rolling told him part of it.  Lifting the sack up, nobody wanted to touch him, another cold metal surface and a different sensation of rolling.  A metallic clang, then silence, and cold.  The distant, faint hum of machinery as his senses adapted to give him something else to focus on, something other than what his body was doing to itself.

     El Nureenen, you were one sadistic piece of work, he cursed the dead demigod, and waited for the process to complete itself.  He had a decent idea of the hurt he was inflicting on the others, and he could only lie here and imagine it.  You want to stack your `curse` up to a real one, Saotome? he asked silently.

     Ranma glanced down at her, Nab-chan had her head in his lap as they drove home.  Her tears had already soaked through his borrowed NERV SAR coveralls, and she still sniffled occasionally, pulled the blanket tighter over her coveralls.  Asuka sat in the corner of the troop-carrying tank, in the same coveralls as the rest of the pilots, she glared at anyone who said a word to her.

     Ranma remembered the earful Asuka had given Misa-chan when she'd come over to the girls, after they hauled the - corpse, away.  Asuka had told her clearly, to shut up and quit talking about it.  If he, Shinji and Rei hadn't led the pair away, Asuka and Nab-chan would have torn Misa-chan apart, when she didn't take the hint.

     Somewhere else, that fight may have been funny, not here, not now.

     Ranma had gotten the message strong and clear, he wasn't about to say anything, as they drove back to NERV.  He doubted he was feeling as defeated as Nab-chan and Asuka, but he still took the loss personally.  He also hoped the cultists had been behind the mortar attack, if they were, things could return to . . . Well, what passes for normal around here, he admitted.  He stroked Nab-chan's hair, he didn't know what else to do, and she didn't react or complain.

     The drawer's release catch was hard to open, with light and his hands, it would have been easy.  In total darkness, using his toes, it proved impossible.

     You're as stubborn as Saotome, he cursed himself, as he used more of what he'd learned and absorbed to reverse himself in the morgue `drawer`, no contortionist could have duplicated the feat.  He wasn't sure if he should be pleased with this skill.

     Without refrigeration, he thought, These might be useful for all my books and papers.  A tiny witchlight, and he saw the catch.

     Opening the drawer, he poked his head up, looked left and right, Nobody here.  He glanced along his naked length, Clothes first, or something.

     He headed for a supply cabinet, and selected a long lab coat and scrub pants.  That taken care of, he thought about what to do next.

     This isn't going to be easy, he sighed, stumbled as a wave of weakness passed through him.  "Terrific, just back from the dead, and all you want is a nap."

     "Is anyone there?" someone called.

     Well, might as well get the ball rolling, he walked towards the voice.  He looked at the Navy corpsman in a matching lab coat, "Somebody's idea of a joke, real funny."

     The corpsman dropped his coffee cup, and ran off screaming.

     "Okay, let's find a mirror and see what I look like, I didn't expect that."  He snagged the rest of a box of donuts as he walked out of the morgue.

     Admiral Simson sat with the pilots outside Asuka's hospital room, in the medcenter.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing to welcome what promised to be a glorious new day.

     Ranma thought you could cut the gloom with an axe, a knife wouldn't be enough.

     "Well, we've determined you can return to your apartments, that at least is over."  If he was expecting some reaction, he didn't show it.

     He stopped, Ranma wondered if the American Admiral wanted to say some of the stupid things Rei and Asuka had warned Ranma not to say.

     What do you say? Ranma wondered, wondered if there were some special words at a time like this, when all he really wanted was to get a cup of water, then let Ranko cry her eyes out.  Instead, he sat here, seemingly calm, but inside he was still all tightened up, like the last punch in the fight hadn't been thrown.  Maybe Asuka's part of that, he reasoned.

     Raccoon and Asuka hadn't been close, Hell, `Sour Kraut` isn't close to anybody.  But she and Raccoon could be found with their heads together, discussing/dissecting things, at the strangest times, usually in a language Ranma didn't even recognize.  When 'Tiger-Ranma' had charged 'Coyote-Raccoon', 'Asuka-Lion' had charged over.  The tiger had been certain he was going to have to take on both of them, simultaneously, Is that why he was able to . . . , Ranma still shuddered at the memory, But she isn't reacting to this, it's almost as if she's waiting for something.  Holding despair off by force of will, or won't.

     "Admiral," an officer rushed up to the man, told him something.  The Admiral went white, then blood-red.

     "If this is a joke," the Admiral growled, "He'll find out how funny 20 years at hard labor in Leavenworth is," he stormed off.

     Nab-chan stirred in his lap, staring at Rei and Shinji, she'd obviously understood what the officer had told the Admiral.  Ranma didn't, his English wasn't good enough.

     Asuka walked out of her hospital room, "Wondergirl, you're with me.  Spineless, go find Captain Katsuragi and Ritsuko, tell them he's wandering around.  Tendo, you and Saotome."

     Shinji nodded and headed off.

     "What's going on?" Ranma asked.  Nab-chan was sitting up, wiping her eyes.

     "Didn't you hear?" Asuka rolled her eyes, "In Japanese: Somebody stole Raccoon's body, from the inside."  When she saw he still didn't understand, "It's walking around."

     Ranma was in the lead, as he and Nab-chan closed in on their wanderer.  The lab coat Raccoon wore, seemed oddly appropriate.  He stared at them owlishly, as they closed in.

     "Good afternoon," Raccoon said in English.

     "Good afternoon!?" Ranma said, "You scared the crap out of us, you know that?  And all you can say is 'Good Afternoon'?"

     "You have me at a disadvantage, sir," Raccoon matched Ranma's Japanese.

     "Only you could be that loony," Ranma said, while Raccoon seemed to be examining the fronts and backs of his hands.  Ranma glanced to Nab-chan, who seemed less perplexed, and a lot more worried.  Rei and Asuka had arrived by this time, with Maya in tow, but no others yet.

     "What's the idea of biting me?!  Especially there!" Ranma demanded, he couldn't imagine a guy doing that, especially to another guy.

     "You are all human, aren't you?" Raccoon acted as if he hadn't heard Ranma's question.

     Ranma was getting a bad feeling about this.  He wished he had Raccoon's stick, if this thing changed into something . . .

     "I think I am also human," Raccoon said softly, "Fascinating."

     Ranma looked at the shocked expressions on Nab-chan and Asuka, and the terror on Rei and Maya's faces.  Shinji and Rit-chan were just arriving, so were a dozen security men, that worried Ranma.

     Maybe Raccoon had died, what did they have here?

     "I am Doctor Akagi," Rit-chan announced in her most official sounding voice, "Do you know where you are?"

     Raccoon looked at the emblem on his lab coat and on the Security troops' uniforms, "NERV headquarters, in Tokyo, guessing from the default language used," he said, "I believe I have discovered something else."

     Ranma watched the others exchange looks, he'd caught a slight change in the other boy's posture.  If he's going to attack, Ranma realized, It'll be now.  Ranma wasn't sure how to react to an attack: Get the others to safety, help Security subdue this thing, kill it?

     "You're all as gullible as I remember," Raccoon smirked.

     Nab-chan and Asuka advanced with a shout, playfully punching him and tousling his hair.

     "I got you all!"

     Ranma sighed, he wasn't sure it was good or bad news that Raccoon was back to normal.


     Ritsuko noticed Jeff was fidgeting as she and Maya performed their tests.  She knew the other pilots, and the Commanding officers, were waiting for her results.  She was extremely worried about them herself.

     "You normally aren't this skittish," Ritsuko asked, "Is there anything wrong?"

     "Well, the fact you're using warm instruments arouses my concerns.  No, not wrong," Jeff sighed, "The night after the concert, I had some, well strange would be putting it mildly, but strange dreams.  I dreamt I was Ranko, and Ranma.  Well Nabiki Tendo was there, except she was a little older, and looked like you, as a teenager; Maya was there, Nabiki's younger sister Akane," he looked at Maya, "And she acted like Captain Katsuragi with a permanent toothache."

     Maya giggled at that.

     "And Captain Katsuragi was there, as a teenager, and she acted about as opposite from our dear Captain as you can imagine, a pleasant nonviolent person, good cook, good housekeeper, in the years I saw her, I think she drank only wedding toasts."

     "How does that have any effect on anything?"

     "Well, Nabiki, that is you, we courted and got married."

     Maya switched from giggling to laughing.

     Ritsuko was having a hard time keeping her composure, keeping the detached air she thought the subject required, "All right."

     "You don't understand, Doc.  We had kids, a bunch of kids."

     Maya shifted to raucous laughter, as Ritsuko blushed.

     Ritsuko grimaced, put on her most austere Doctor Akagi face, "I understand as you said, it was a dream.  Young men often," she swallowed, "Have fantasies.  I am rather flattered you chose me as yours, but -"

     "No, Doctor Akagi, you really don't understand what I'm saying."

     Nabiki hadn't expected Maya's clamorous laughter as she ran from the examination room.  Doctor Akagi looked like she'd swallowed something, and was now discovering it was still alive and moving.  Raccoon knotting his tie and looking terribly ashamed completed the picture.

     What worried Nabiki was that Maya kept looking at her, and Misato, and laughing even harder.

     "So what do you remember?" Nabiki asked.

     "Not much."

     "When we were in the spell, you said you were 'Walking the dark places, in and out, to and fro,'" Ranma said, "What did you mean?"

     "I meant what I said, and vice versa.  Without a common reference, I can't really explain it."

     "You mean we have to die to understand?" Ranma asked.

     "No, you need a scientific understanding, with some psychological training."

     Ranma frowned at that, "You still didn't answer my question!"

     "You think I'd enjoy that?" Raccoon replied, "You trying to spoil my fun, cooped up for days and days, and just as I'm starting to get a decent workout, you had to interfere.  I don't interfere with your workouts.  Besides, you should talk to Akagi-sensei about washing yourself.  Yuck, nasty flavor."

     Nabiki hid her smile, clearly, Ranma hadn't meant that question, he would probably preferred if nobody ever raised the subject again.  He couldn't decide if he should press the issue of his actual question, or not.  The laughter from the others told him he shouldn't have brought any of it up in the first place.

     "What are we going to do to keep this from happening any more?" Asuka asked.

     "Well, this last on was a spell," Raccoon said, took a step, nearly stumbled.  He managed to catch himself with his walking stick, "I don't quite know what to do.  I do have a few ideas."

     And how did that thing get past us? Ranma stared at it.  He was going to get some answers.

     "From walking the dark places?"  Rei asked.  Something in the way she said it, gave everyone shivers.

     "Maybe, so what's been going on?" Raccoon asked.  For nearly an hour, they discussed the events of the past weeks, including Asuka's battle, and the death of Nancy Thompson.  The last brought the discussion to a halt.

     Sensing the grim mood, "We need to have a party," Misato announced, and was greeted with stony silence and a volley of icy stares.

     "I'm afraid both our hospital cases need rest, after last night, and I want to keep them under observation," Ritsuko said, ushering Raccoon and Asuka away.

     The others took the opportunity to disperse, before Misato could urge another party.  Nabiki found Ranma following her.

     "Do you want to collect the other two, and do our usual Sunday thing?" he obviously didn't understand her quickly hidden smirk.

     "Yes, I'll head back home, you hunt down Shinji and Rei.  Or you want to trade?" Nabiki asked.

     Ranma shook his head, he wasn't eager to cook and clean.  He headed out, to locate the other two.

     Ritsuko and Maya had dropped off Asuka in her room, the girl was tired, exhausted really, but wouldn't admit it, even under torture.  There were some things you couldn't hide from a doctor.  Maya stayed behind for a moment to get Asuka settled.

     As she walked along the corridor, she thought Jeff was a better actor, but she could tell he was acting, he'd stumbled a few times during the walk, caught himself with his cane.  Both had been adamant about not using wheelchairs.

     All pilots are stubborn, Ritsuko thought, as she followed closely.  She was tempted to let the two of them run around, just to see how far their pride really would take them, when their bodies and minds desperately needed rest.  That was the real reason she wanted those two to stay at the medcenter, their egos would force them to keep up with the other pilots, and that would be harmful to their recovery.

     "I don't think I need a chaperone, I know how to sleep," Jeff told her, his usual politeness was strained though.

     "Really?  Did you study it at college?" she knew she was needling him.  She was also curious about his seemingly impenetrable reserve, almost nothing could put him off-center, for more than a few moments, "Or is it a natural talent."  She caught herself when he stumbled against the doorjamb to the hospital room.

     "Very expensive tutors," he sighed, "Please close the door behind you."

     "The others are going to find out eventually," she told him as she helped him off with his jacket.  The weight of the thing still amazed her.

     He was unknotting his tie, "Not if I can help it.  They have plenty of other things to worry about."

     That, coincidentally, was the other reason she wanted to talk to him.  "What you said, why me, why Nabiki?"  She looked at him, he stopped.

     "Are you amazed I'd be lonely?  Or are you wondering why I'd turn to someone like you and Nabiki?" he set his walking stick aside stepped closer, lowered his voice, "My other choices: Maya with all her gentleness and love of life shorn away, or Misato?  With either, I'd spend the rest of my life wondering when I'd married an axe murderer.  No, I didn't settle.  You and Miss Tendo have convinced yourselves nobody could ever love you.  You're both wrong.  Maya would agree, so would both Ranma and Ranko."  He frowned, rubbed his leg.

     "Thank you for that."  She looked at Maya, entering and closing the door behind her.  "I, don't necessarily agree with your assertions, but I think we disagree on the degree, not the underlying premise."  She was flustered about talking in front of Maya, and that all three of her charges had been pointing out Maya's attraction.  As a hypothesis, it fit the data a little too well.

     "Let's just say my training for military intelligence gives me some insights.  I've also seen the real thing," he started to turn, and cried out as his leg collapsed under him.

     Ritsuko caught him before he could bash his head on the bed or the floor, Ritsuko grunted as she felt the deadweight.

     He hissed in pain, "It's just Charlie-horse, a cramp, I'll be fine."

     "Maya!" Ritsuko shouted, Going from fever to clammy, you are not `fine`!  You're going into shock.

     The two were able to set him flat on the floor.  Ritsuko was glad she'd given him a tongue depressor to bite on, instead of her fountain pen, especially when he bit through it.  She hated how much they were hurting him, and felt very guilty about letting it go this far.

     She waited for him to quiet down once he was on the ground.  She and Maya covered him with his coat and the blankets off the bed.  Well, that answers that question, Ritsuko thought, They'll push themselves until they collapse and go into shock.

     "Sorry about this," Jeff whispered painfully, "I felt the twinges, but I ignored it.  I thought . . . "

     "You thought you'd ignore it, and what?" Ritsuko asked, "Have a couple of bananas for breakfast, and expect it to go away?"

     "Something like that," he whispered.

     "Maya, Potassium Iodide solution, salt pills and some tea, cold is okay," Ritsuko told her.  Maya nodded and left.

     Ritsuko rolled up her sleeves, "It still hurts, doesn't it?"


     "Next time, maybe you won't be so stubborn, and you'll remember how the old lady let you outmaneuver yourself."  She started trying to work the cramps out of his legs.

     Jeff hissed in pain, pounded the floor.

     "Sorry, I wish Ran . . . ko was here, she's very good at this," Ritsuko told him.

     "Please, just finish," he replied, "I can take it.  I remember a conversation with Rei, she seemed to think she was expendable, as if there were dozens of replacements.  It made me angry, with you and the Commander.  She later made it sound like there was an assembly line somewhere, turning out pilots.  I thought that was funny."

     "Why is that funny?" Ritsuko was near panic, He couldn't know, could he?

     He hissed through clenched teeth as she found a particularly sore spot.

     "Engineers know, even washers coming off an assembly line, out of the same stamping machine aren't the same.  That's why there are tolerances, they aren't the same, just close.  More complicated machines, would be even more different from each other."

     Ritsuko relaxed as she worked, He was just following the implications of what Rei told him.

     "I haven't decided one thing: was it all you, all Miss Tendo, or some of both."

     "What's that?" Ritsuko asked, regretted it immediately.

     "I waited until Maya was gone, but I discovered Ritsuko-Nabiki had a very - sensual side, she liked to touch and be touched, by certain, specific people.  She was extremely choosy about who, typically people who were likely never to hit or hurt her physically.  As violent as `Maya` was, she didn't let her or those like her get close, but those within the `circle` usually got very different treatment."

     "oh," Ritsuko hoped he hadn't heard her voice crack, again, things were hitting close to home.

     "The day I showed up, Ritsuko-Nabiki took me to her room to 'see how complete the change was.'  Along with some very good, clear advice on, let's call it feminine hygiene.  She also handled, no, fondled, my breasts."

     Ritsuko choked on that, she'd been pleased by how physical Nabiki and Ranma were: hugs, touches, and they accepted when she returned them.  A far cry from Misato, who like this variant Maya-Akane seemed to only punch or slap.  Or the others, who never got close at all.

     "You didn't object?" she was terribly self-conscious working on his upper leg now, she considered simply leaving him untreated.  She knew she was treating an injury, but in the back of her mind, she was second-guessing her motives.  Still, when he covered his head when she touched his leg, she decided the hurt was still too bad to leave alone.

     There was a long silence after she had mulled her motives over, "I enjoyed it.  It felt enjoyable, and as between girls, I didn't think such touching wouldn't be absolutely inappropriate.  Later she showed me that boys reacted much the same."

     She felt the blush warm the skin she was working on.  She smiled at that, and was very disturbed by the implications, she wasn't sure whether her, or Nabiki's, characteristics would have prompted such behavior.

     "I'm guessing, that you didn't go into medicine because you couldn't imagine hurting people, even to help them," he took her silence as a signal to continue, "As one `heartless bastard` to another, you learned some things have to be put in perspective, but not everything, and that just because you caused the pain, that doesn't preclude you from trying to soothe it away."

     "Thank you," Ritsuko said.


     They had their school books on the dinner table.  Ranma had found Rei and Shinji quickly enough, at Rei's suggestion, he'd found Hiroko leaving school, and added Toji and Kensuke, brought them back to Rit-chan's place.

     "So you were animals?" Hiroko asked, "You didn't just think you were, or you actually changed?"

     "Changed," Ranma stared at the math books, it just didn't make sense.  English was worse.

     "How'd you feel being a tiger?" Shinji asked.

     Ranma shrugged, "How does a tiger feel?"

     "A bear?" Hiroko chuckled, "A cute, cuddly, soft, little teddy bear?"  Nabiki glared at her.

     "An 800 kilo, full-grown, Kodiak grizzly," Rei said.

     Hiroko's eyes bugged out, then started laughing as Ranma commented on Nabiki turning over trucks and tossing around soldiers.

     Nabiki further pointed her glare, "Do you really think you should be making me mad?"

     Ranma pulled back, making a warding gesture.

     Shinji, Kensuke and Toji laughed.

     "I can't imagine what that was like," Kensuke said.

     "It was enjoyable," Rei said, then fell silent as she became the center of attention.

     "A pack," she managed, finally finding the words.

     "A fighting pack," Kensuke elaborated, "Different skills, different abilities."

     Rei nodded once.

     "Strength and speed, leadership, cunning.  All in different amounts, all . . . mixed," Nabiki said.  Rei nodded again.

     Hiroko was intrigued, "So, if the boss was a bear, and Saotome was a tiger, Asuka a lion, Shinji a wolf, what were you Ayanami-san?"

     "A puma," Rei said.

     "Okay, a tiger-light," Hiroko paused to think, then laughed, "What about Raccoon?  A wolverine?  Or a wolf?"

     "A coyote," Ranma supplied, he couldn't figure out why Hiroko got white-faced at that.

     "Why'd the girls turn into cats, and the boys into dogs, except you Ranma?" Toji asked.

     Ranma was disturbed by that comment.

     "Bears are in the super family Canoidea," Rei said, "Like dogs."

     "Okay, that means Saotome, is really a girl, and the boss is a boy," Hiroko said, she sighed theatrically, "And so handsome, he's even pretty."

     Ranma blushed, and noticed for once, somebody had gotten Nabiki, she was blushing too.

     "So when does Sour Kraut get released to cause havoc again?" Toji asked.

     "Why Toji," Nabiki said, "I'd almost think you're sweet on her."

     Toji stuttered denials and turned purple, denying any connection with Asuka.  All the others laughed at Toji's distress.

     "Afraid I'm going to turn into a terrible monster?" Jeff asked Ritsuko as they tucked him in, made sure he didn't have to move very far to get the salt-laced tea.

     "No, I am curious about how you managed your little trick," Ritsuko told him.

     "Oh, that's easy.  It didn't happen."

     Ritsuko frowned at that.

     "Did the body cool?  Did brain activity cease?  How did you determine you should stuff me in a freezer?"

     "Heart rate and breathing ceased," Ritsuko continued her checks.

     "I'm more worried about what happened while I was unconscious, and it took a transformation spell and a near death experience to revive me.  I'd like to know what that stuff, that was L.C.L., is now."

     "We saved some," Ritsuko told him, "We're doing tests, don't worry."

     "SOME?" he asked, "Where's the rest of it?"

     Ritsuko stopped, considered, "I assume it was disposed of, when the plug was recovered."

     Jeff was not happy with this possibility, "I really think you need to look into that."

     Ritsuko made a note to do just that.

     "So what else has happened?" Jeff asked, "I don't mean about what the others told me.  I mean what are you doing about it.  Someone mortars a picnic, someone sends a bunch of byakhee to kill the pilots.  I don't believe in coincidences."

     "We don't have any leads," Ritsuko admitted, then to cover it, "But we are still working on it."

     Jeff filed the data, and Ritsuko's responses, for later analysis.  He also wondered why no one had managed to track the attackers by the shrapnel they'd removed from Langley or Nancy.  He wondered how difficult it would be to get a piece, and investigate on his own.

     The sound of flesh against flesh was the usual ending to an argument against Misato, Ritsuko had plenty of experience on that score.  It was also the best indicator she was winning the argument.  She remembered the start of this `discussion`.

     'I didn't think that the alternatives were better, and I couldn't find the Tactical Commander, or the Security Director.  Do I even want to know why that is?' she'd asked.

     Misato's hand had followed, a predictable path.

     What changed was Ritsuko raising her arm, catching the blow on her forearm, the impact still stung.  Better on my arm than on my face, she thought.  She had fumbled the counter that would have trapped Misato's wrist, I'll have to thank Nabiki and Ranma for the lessons.  Ritsuko looked at Misato trying to get some feeling back in her hand.

     "What are you made of?" Misato asked.

     Ritsuko glared at her, and stepped towards her, "I was doing my job," Ritsuko told her, "By the best means that were available."

     Misato grimaced, her hand still stung where Ritsuko had blocked it.

     "If that isn't good enough, then be here to give us better options," Ritsuko continued, "I wasn't happy with the alternatives, but they were all I had."  Ritsuko walked away.  It's confusing, I am eager to leave my quiet, composed office, for the insanity I know I'll find at home, and I'm looking forward to it.  Because I find it relaxing.  I suppose Misato doesn't get the same release, Ritsuko thought as she glanced back and watched Misato walk away.

     Misato entered her apartment, "Shinji?" she got no answer, walked over to Pen-pen's refrigerator, he wasn't there either.

     She checked the other refrigerator.  There was a plate of sandwiches, a note on the kitchen counter told her Shinji was at Ritsuko's.  She felt anger welling up, then it crashed.  She sat at the table, looked around the empty apartment.  No sounds beyond the noise of the city in the distance.  No noise from anything alive in the place.  She got a beer, set it on the table next to the sandwiches, "No, nothing alive here at all."

     Ritsuko looked at the crowd in her apartment, she felt a little resentment that her home had become the de facto meeting place.  But Toji had said it best, 'This place is HUGE!'  Ritsuko had learned that his and Hikari's families, together, barely matched the square footage of her apartment.  If you counted the patio, you had to add Hiroko's family's apartment to beat the space available.  She and Maya were cooking food, and Maya kept brushing against her, Ritsuko would have sworn there was enough room in the kitchen for two.  Maya still hadn't gotten over her giggles from Jeff's admission about his dream.  Maya's expression also betrayed she thought entertaining like this was delightful.  She was staying over, the military hadn't cleared her home as safe.  Ritsuko wondered what had suddenly made the apartments safer than headquarters, she wasn't complaining, she just wanted an explanation.

     "It's nice, sempai," Maya whispered to her.

     "It's noisy," she replied quietly, although she could have shouted, and not overwhelmed the kids' conversation.

     She hadn't understood how she had `inherited` Rei and PenPen, who, having no interest in the argument at the table, were playing chess on the patio with the door closed.  She couldn't imagine when Misato would have trained the bird to play chess, or why.  Misato had little interest in the game, when Ritsuko had tried to teach her in college.  The argument abated as she and Maya put the food on the table.

     Ritsuko felt guilty as Rei sat alone in the patio.  She headed there with a certain sense of dread.  Rei would follow her orders, how did she phrase it as a request, not an order, and yet get the girl to comply.  She looked back at Maya setting out the dishes, and got the impression that Maya was intentionally not looking at her, to force her to do this.

     "Rei, would you like to join us to eat?"

     The girl looked up from the game, Ritsuko let PenPen dart past.  She thought the penguin had been winning.

     "Thank you, no."

     Ritsuko glanced back at Maya, who gestured for her to continue.  "Should I bring something out here for you?"

     The girl stared at the chessboard, saying nothing.

     Ritsuko felt her temper flare, Rei always managed to bring out the worst in her.  "I think that Shinji and Maya would appreciate your company."

     "I'm sorry," Rei made no move.

     Ritsuko's first instinct was to leave her out there, she glanced over, realized everyone was watching her now.  Now I'm the entertainment! she centered herself.  She didn't have anything to say to Rei.  Rei rarely had anything to say to anyone, except the Commander.  She hoped Maya would figure out enough to play along, Ritsuko sat where Penpen had, on the cold concrete, and reset the chessboard.

     I haven't played in years, she thought, as Rei made her first move.

     Maya brought two plates of food out, and a pot of tea with two cups, as the game progressed.  Ritsuko was painfully aware of the silence within, that alarmed her, and disrupted her concentration.

     "Checkmate," Rei told her.

     Awfully smugly, Ritsuko thought, suppressed an urge to sweep the pieces off the board, the girl's manner still irritated her.  Instead she set her king down as a token of surrender, "I think we need to get ready to go to bed," Ritsuko told her, "The others need a ride home."

     "I will accompany them."

     That one Ritsuko felt she could counter with an order, "No, you're staying here."

     Rei looked at her, stared at her for a while, "Very well."

     "You'll sleep with Nabiki in my room."  Why am I doing this? she wondered, Because of what Jeff told me, or because I don't want Maya and the kids disapproving?  As if I should care.

     "Yes, Doctor."

     Ritsuko got up, stiff at having sat on the cold concrete for so long.  She saw the suppressed grins on her charges, and the other students.

     Maya's wasn't suppressed, it was impish, "That didn't hurt, now did it?"

     Ritsuko decided not to toss her assistant out on her ear, or over the railing of the balcony.

     "Just for that, you're sleeping on the floor.  Shinji, you'll be in the boys' room, Nabiki, you'll double up with Rei."

     They nodded, Ritsuko had the feeling they had hatched some conspiracy while she was playing chess.

     Ritsuko drove Toji home first.  Maya had taken Kensuke, and would pick up a change of clothes for Rei, Ritsuko would do the same for Shinji.  Hiroko would help her, then she'd drop her off home.

     Toji's family wasn't home, "Don't worry, I'm used to it.  Dad's working late, an' grandpa is out."

     Ritsuko wasn't happy about that, but she couldn't do anything.

     The sortie into Misato's apartment was more depressing.  Misato had fallen asleep at the table.  Only a single candle lit the entire place.  Ritsuko extinguished it, before it could topple and set Misato's hair on fire.  She didn't know how Misato was going to get the rivulet of wax out of her hair.  The collection of beer cans eloquently explained why she and Hiroko carrying Misato to her bedroom, didn't rouse her.

     It was also why Ritsuko didn't simply throw her over her shoulder, and carry her there, Ritsuko didn't want her to throw up, and the clean up it would entail.

     She looked at Nabiki's factor, she knew Nabiki wouldn't `employ` the girl, unless she was discreet.

     "This never happened, do you understand?" Ritsuko asked, staring at the girl.

     Hiroko nodded, "We just got Shinji's clothes."

     Good, Ritsuko thought.  "You were under fire, as were the pilots.  How did you feel?" Ritsuko asked as they collected Shinji's pajamas, and a change of clothes.

     The girl looked at her, "I knew with the pilots there, I'd make it.  It isn't that they're magic talismans or something, but . . . it's like I knew nothing would happen to me."

     "But something would happen to them?" Ritsuko led her into the kitchen to get breakfast for PenPen.

     "It's like the Angel of Death would know who they were, and pass over us."

     "Be careful when referring to Angels," Ritsuko warned, "They may hear you."

Clarion Focus

     "Oh Ranma!" Nabiki sighed, "No man has the right to be so good!" her fingers tangled in his silk-soft hair.  He thrust her again and again into the throes of ecstasy, until finally she was satiated.  She cuddled him to her naked breast and felt his gasping breaths tickling her.

     "Nabiki-kun," Ranma raised his face, staring into her eyes longingly, "I am not the Fourth."

     Nabiki opened her eyes, and looked into the red eyes and the pale form she had wrapped herself around.  "Rei!"

     The other girl stared at her.

     Nabiki unlocked her legs from around Rei's hips and her arms from her back.  "How did you get over here?!" Nabiki looked over to Rei's futon at the far corner of the bedroom.

     "You seized me," she seemed unperturbed.

     Nabiki wondered how much of her dream she'd acted out, when she was asleep.  She was also aware that her nightshirt was sodden with sweat from her exertions.  "Did I hurt you?" Nabiki asked worriedly.

     Rei gave her stare #9, 'You're being inane and don't deserve an answer you already know.'  "You need a bath," Rei said, "As do I."  Rei stood and headed for the bathroom.

     Nabiki had been a little disturbed that the girl wore nothing to bed.  Now she saw the red marks across Rei's back, like an embarrassed zebra.  I made those with my fingers, Nabiki was glad she kept her fingernails trimmed short.

     "Come," Rei told her.

     Nabiki hoped she meant follow.  She walked into the bathroom after Rei.  Nabiki picked at her flannel nightshirt that her sweat had plastered to her.

     Rei had a wash stool for herself and one for Nabiki.

     As soon as Nabiki sat down, Rei pulled her shirt up and looped it through her collar.  Before Nabiki could protest, Rei started wiping her back with a cool, damp cloth.

     "Rei, what are you doing?" Nabiki tried to disentangle herself from her shirt.

     "If I do not wash your back, why would you wash mine?" Rei's gentle strokes never faltered.

     "Rei, it's a figure of speech.  It doesn't actually mean . . . " Nabiki halted as Rei stood, going to the nearby sink to fill a plastic tumbler with cold water.

     "I mean, you could just ask me," Nabiki watched Rei return, and was shocked when Rei sat in her lap.  Her shock became astonishment as Rei puckered her lips and leaned closer.

     Am I still dreaming? Nabiki wondered as she leaned back, avoiding the kiss, This is nuts!

     "Is every . . . " Ranma entered through the bathroom's other door, wearing his T-shirt and boxers sleep wear, "OH! I'm - "

     With a quick flip of the tumbler, Rei made Ranko finish the apology, "Sorry . . . good throw, quick and unexpected."

     Rei stood and walked towards Ranko.

     "I said I was sorry," Ranko held up a warding hand and retreated a step.

     "Stop," Rei said firmly, Ranko subsided.  Rei collected another wash stool and Ranko's ear, Ranko decided she wanted to stay attached to it.  "You will wash Nabiki-kun's back, I will wash yours, she mine," Rei lead Ranko back to Nabiki.

     Nabiki was struggling to cover herself with her nightshirt, she did not want to face Ranma wearing only a `collar` and a pair of damp panties.  All she managed was to get one arm loose and the other hopelessly tangled in the sleeves, so she looked like she was impersonating the Statue of Liberty.

     "Ayanami, what happened to your back?" Ranko asked as Rei seated her, facing Nabiki's back.

     "Nabiki-kun was making love to you," Rei told her.

     Nabiki gave up trying to escape her tangled shirt, I wonder if I can just hang myself? she thought as she hung her head.

     Ranko seemed to redden as much as Nabiki, as Rei gave Ranko's T-shirt the same treatment she'd given Nabiki's flannel.  Now that Nabiki had seen what Rei did, she could disentangle herself.  Ranko was getting the same gentle, workmanlike strokes with cool water, and was obviously torn between enjoying it, and being completely humiliated.

     Ranko looked helplessly at Nabiki, then looked away.

     I wonder if she wants the earth to open up and swallow her too, Nabiki knew Rei could be direct, but this was beyond anything she'd heard the girl even suggest.

     "You are not keeping the bargain," Rei told Ranko.

     Ranko took up the wash rag and started tentatively washing Nabiki's back.

     Nabiki could barely complete the triangle with Rei, she was mortified, but somehow couldn't just run away.

     "Why do you favor Ranma, over the others?" Rei asked.

     Nabiki felt Ranko freeze as her own rag quit moving.  Hi, I'm your relationship councillor, Rei Ayanami, I'll be abashing the Hell out of you today, but don't worry, it's very therapeutic, Nabiki thought.  "Uh, can we change the subject?" Nabiki asked plaintively.

     "No," Rei said sternly, eliciting a chuckle from Ranko.  "Why do you favor him over Roku-kun, Shinji-kun, or Toji?"

     Nabiki looked helplessly at Ranko, who returned the gaze double.

     Terrific, Nabiki thought, she knew once Rei got her `teeth` into a problem or question, only a direct order from the senior staff would derail her.  And calling Ritsuko would worsen the problem, or worse, she'd insist we answer Rei's questions.  "I . . . I'm . . . ," Oh, very good, Captain Articulate.  "I really can't explain it," Nabiki said weakly, saw the look of betrayal and disappointment on Ranko's face.

     "Is it his physical beauty?" Rei asked.

     "Guys aren't beautiful," Ranko managed.

     "If it is his beauty, why not favor the Second?" Rei ignored Ranko, "She is more beautiful than the Fourth."

     "She's a girl," Nabiki retorted.

     "So `Ranko` detracts?" Rei asked.

     Ranko froze, looking desperately at her and Rei.

     Nabiki could see dread in her eyes.  Nabiki was all too aware of the emotion minefield Rei had thrust both of them into, If I talk about his character, or `inner beauty` Ranma will think I am repelled by the transformation, if I say I am attracted, Ranma won't be able to handle that, he'll be repelled by me, Nabiki thought, as she searched despondently for something to say, "Well, she's pretty, but I'm not interested in her the way I am with Ranma."

     Oh, I could have said that better, "I mean, I like boys.  I don't mind that Ranma changes into Ranko it's . . . it's not something either of us want to explore."  Having gotten that out, without hurting Ranko, Nabiki counterattacked, "Why are you asking this?  Don't you have a crush on Shinji?" she cut herself off before she asked if Rei was interested in Ranma, both for fear of the answer, and the betrayal of Ranma's trust.  Any answer to that question, Nabiki knew, IS likely to lead to a disaster.

     "Yes.  I do not understand why," Rei told them, she lowered her head, clearly confused and self-conscious, "He completes me," she paused, "I want to be the mother of his children," she added softly, "I want to know why."

     Of all the events in this awkward morning, Nabiki thought, That has to be the worst.  She couldn't think of anything to offer the girl.

     "I don't think you can really explain it," Ranko said, "It just sorta happens to a . . . "

     Nabiki stared at Ranko, with raised eyebrows.  But Ranko was too humiliated to say anything more.  Rei looked from Nabiki to Ranko, studying them.

      Back to Index

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 15 - Differing Opinions

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.

     TheScholarly Dragon arrives in the Waking World, by unknown means.

     The Scholarly Dragon meets with Asuka, and gives her plans for a campaign against Misato.

     During a Sunday picnic, the pilots are mortared, Nancy Thompson is killed, Asuka is slightly injured. The Military discovers the goal was to capture, not kill the pilots.

     Nabiki and Ranma train Ritsuko in martial arts. Maya is forced to confront the reality of her dead colleagues, and she may be next. Nabiki admits her fear for Ranma as the cause of her anger with him.

     While Asuka is recovering, Rei tries to reach out to her rival. Later Rei saves all the pilots from an assassination attempt. Ranma and the Scholarly Dragon save her.

     There is a traitor at NERV, one who doesn't know Ranma and Ranko are the same person. The Commanders have their suspicions.

     Cultists transform the pilots into an animal, the embodiment of their personality. The details of El Nureenen's Curse on Jeff are revealed.

     Ritsuko and Rei try to make peace, Rei tries to understand her feelings for Shinji by comparing them to the feelings of Nabiki and Ranma for each other.

Author's Notes: Special thanks to Sniper for the translation help.

"If violence is not solving your problems you're just not using enough of it."

Misato Katsuragi - Neon Genesis Evangelion

"I could never make them understand violence is a precision instrument.  It's a scalpel, not a club."

The Intendant - Deep Space 9, "Shattered Mirror"

Chapter 15 - Differing Opinions

     Ranko was glad Dr. Akagi had told her to leave.  That Raccoon had effectively collapsed from over-exerting himself, was more like what she'd actually said.  Ranko was just glad to get out of the apartment.  Rei had asked Maya about her attempt to kiss Ritsuko, while she was still asleep, and Ranko wanted to get out of the building while Maya was explaining that.

     Ranko was jogging towards the medcenter, not a run, but a quick, distance-devouring pace.  She had come to a conclusion, sticking a bunch of girls under one roof for a night, made them all go nuts.  If Shinji was smart, he'd stay in the room until the sun was well up, and whatever was affecting Rei, Nab-chan, Rit-chan and Maya-chan wore off.

     So is Ranma going to see Raccoon to get away, or is Ranko because he's a boy? Ranko nearly fell over after thinking that, "GAAAH!  It got me too!"

     She had discarded the thought of getting some hot water when she'd left, she'd thought it was just so she could avoid getting splashed with dirty water, on the way over.  Now she was rethinking things.

     She had to admit, Nab-chan's admission hit Ranma pretty hard.  Especially after what she'd admitted about her lost friend, fearing Ranma's death.  Ranma had scoffed at that, then he watched Raccoon die, or everyone thought he did.  Figures Raccoon could trick the Grim Reaper too, she thought.  What Nab-chan had said, made more sense, a lot more.  Ranma didn't like Raccoon, he was actually a little afraid of him.  But watching him die that way . . . Ranma could understand why Nab-chan never wanted to go through that again.

     "But we all will," Ranko said, "We've been lucky, but if it happens, it happens."  Ranko found it was easier to accept her own death, even Ranma's `death` and her survival, than the death of the other pilots.  It was with those dark thoughts, she entered Raccoon's hospital room.

     "Hello, Ranko-san," he greeted her, he was wearing a full set of pajamas.

     Typical, "Figures you'd be up," And dressed from neck to foot, Ranko said, "Dr. Akagi told me about your problem yesterday.  She told you I could help, well, here I am."

     "Yes," he chuckled, "I was being an idiot, for two weeks I didn't use my muscles at all, then I assumed I could go back to full function.  I'm surprised I didn't kill myself . . . that's a joke."

     "Rit-chan said you nearly did," Ranko shot back, surprised at her own vehemence, understanding Nab-chan's `insanity` a little more.

     "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you, or anyone else," he apologized, "Men sometimes do stupid things, because they have this image of how they're supposed to act.  It's dumb, and it's foolish, and it was an indication of how out-of-sorts I was, that I was acting that way, and didn't even notice.  I mean, the last thing I'd want, is to start acting like Saotome-san!"

     Ranko growled at that.

     Raccoon laughed, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't tease you like that.  I know how much you love him, but even you have to admit, if both of us started acting like that - oh, boy!"

     Ranko relaxed.  She did have to admit, she didn't want Raccoon to start acting like Ranma, half the time she wanted to punch out the smug American, the other half she . . . she abandoned that thought, it sounded too much like what she just run away from at the apartment.

     "You okay?" Raccoon asked, "You looked like you just stepped in something, with bare feet."

     "Yeah," Ranko walked over to Raccoon's walking stick, picking it up, "Let's just say, it's been a scary couple of weeks, okay?"

     "Sure," he smiled, "It hasn't been too pleasant at my end either.  I don't even think I can describe what I remember doing, except it could loosely be called fighting.  Anything else - " he passed his hand over his head, "Over my head, so it's probably over yours too."

     "Okay."  Ranko was a little nervous, and she couldn't figure out why, she set the stick down.

     "I would like your permission to try something.  A little experiment, one of the things into which I was looking.  It may help you dealing with Tendo-san, and if you can get Saotome-san to listen, it will help him too."

     "Sure," then she smiled, stepped up to the edge of the bed, resisted an impulse to sit on it, next to him, "Are you sure you want to help Ranma?" she teased.

     "Oh, never, but it might deal with Tendo-san's attitude, just a quick experiment, I don't even have to touch you.  If it is too uncomfortable, tell me, and I'll stop."

     "No, no problem, go ahead," Ranko watched him lean over towards her, she could tell he wasn't trying to kiss her mouth, but she stood still watching, ready to react.

     She giggled as the breath tickled the small hairs on her neck.  "This is serious!" she told him, "How is that supposed to help Nab-chan?"

     "That was the first part of the experiment," he told her, "If you're going to predict something, you need data, to draw a line through, to predict if another point is or isn't on that line."

     "I guess that makes sense, that's it, how does that help?"

     "A level of similarity between Tendo-san and Dr. Akagi, I think you have some of the same characteristics, I just need to verify that, then I can tell you my hypothesis.  If you don't, well frankly, I don't think I should tell you anything."

     "Just do your experiment before I strangle you.  Nab-chan's been acting more nuts than usual, if this helps, I want to know."

     "Okay, all I need to do, is touch your face, if at any time, you get uncomfortable, tell me, I'll stop.  But, I will want you to describe why you're uncomfortable, agreed."

     "Yeah, sure," Just get ON with it, Ranko thought, Quit with the asking permission!  If you hurt me, or try something perverted, I'll deck you, and we both know it.

     He took his index fingers, and starting at the bridge of her nose, started brushing her eyebrows.  Short, soft strokes, like he was coaxing an ant forward.  If Toji, or anybody except Rit-chan, had done the same thing, she would have belted them, but she saw the look of intense concentration, he was studying the effect, as weird as it made her feel, it was partially impersonal.  The same short, soft strokes from the end of her eyebrows, across her temples to her ears.  She shivered a little at that.

     "Is it all right?" he asked.

     "Just finish please," she told him, she felt really peculiar about this: excited, frightened, repelled by her excitement.  If Raccoon is trying something perverted, he sure is going about it in a spooky way! she thought, trying not to enjoy the contact.

     He continued coaxing the ants down the outer edge of her ears, then squeezed her earlobes gently, then sat back, "All done, do you still want to hit me?"

     "Only if you don't tell me what's going on."

     "Has Tendo-san ever hit you?  I don't mean sparing, I mean just walloped you, or Saotome-san?"

     "Does poking count?" Ranko was trying to remember whether Nab-chan had hit him or her, some of the things she'd said hurt worse than any punch or kick she could remember taking.  "I don't think so, she usually pokes me in the chest."

     "Straight down the centerline," he indicated her sternum, "Or off to one side or the other?"

     Ranko squirmed, Nab-chan had poked her there, a couple of times, and touched her there in other ways, always very gentle, usually when they were `negotiating`, and never in public.  Neither Ranma nor Ranko had the guts to counterattack the same way.

     "I'll take that as a 'yes', did you enjoy it?  Did it make you feel good?  Did it make Ranma feel good?" Raccoon asked with a clinical tone.

     Ranko was too ashamed to nod.

     "Hentai BAKA!" Raccoon raised his voice to a shriek, and his hand to strike.

     Ranko froze, eyes squeezed shut, bracing herself to accept the blow, a righteous thunderbolt.  When it landed, it was not what she expected.

     "Ranko, I'm sorry," he had an arm around her shoulders, the other cradling her head against his neck, "I'm so sorry, but I had to know.  Some things are just too terrible to believe, even if they're true.  I'm sorry."

     He knows!  By all the gods and kamis, HE KNOWS! Ranko thought, she barely heard the pleas for forgiveness from the boy.  For weeks, she and Ranma had had flickers, feelings of the `rightness` or `wrongness` of something someone said or did, but like smoke or shadows, the sense was gone before he or she could examine or understand it.  Then for perhaps two seconds after Raccoon's shout, one of those phantoms had a steel-cased, poured-concrete reality, Ranko would have stood there, and accepted whatever punishment was meted out, because she deserved it.  She knew she deserved it, as well as she knew her own name!  Then with the gentle touch and apology, Raccoon revealed the monster as so much mist and smoke, blown away in an instant.

     None of the monstrosities she'd fought, nothing she'd heard anyone say, not even the mortar attack or the cat, matched the terror of that moment.  Then it was banished away, something too strong from Ranma to ever face, defeated by the weakness of another.

     "It's all right, I'm all right," she told him, returning his hug, a touch of Nab-chan reared its head, "But now you have to tell me."

     "Fair enough," he tried to pull away.

     But she hung on, he didn't press the issue.

     "First, you are not a pervert, not you, nor Nab-chan or Rit-chan, as you call them," he straightened up, pulling her into his lap.

     She wanted to protest, but decided against it, there was still a lingering fear of whatever Raccoon had summoned from her mind, only here, it would face Raccoon and that walking stick first.  Ranko almost felt sorry for it.

     "This is it," he brushed her hand across his lips, "Touch, all three of you want it, maybe Saotome-san too.  Yet none of you think you deserve it.  So a slap is a caress, and a kick is a kiss.  All three, maybe all four of you, want someone you can trust, to give you what you want, and not give you what you expect.  Try brushing her hair out of her eyes, a pat on the shoulder, rest your chin on her shoulder, something nonthreatening, non-sexual.  I think you'll like the results."

     "Nab-chan or Rit-chan?" Ranko asked.

     "Both, either, I'll leave it to you to figure out how to tell Saotome-san, he doesn't listen to me, and from what you just helped me prove, belting him is not the path to making him listen."  He set her beside him, off his lap.


     "It's either that, or you help me change the sheets.  I have to visit the euphemism."  Raccoon stood up and headed slowly towards the bathroom.

     Ranko considered what had happened, she glanced around the room, as if that specter was lurking out there.  Her hand dropped to the bed, and closed around the handgrip of Raccoon's walking stick.  She held it defensively, looking for a target.

     "Thanks," she told it, when she saw the bathroom door open, I've got to get one of those.

     Ranko noticed how slowly Raccoon was moving now.

     "I should have taken a shower, before I went to bed."

     Ranko wrinkled her nose, "Yeah."

     "Thanks," Raccoon said.

     "What about the rest of it?" Ranko asked, "The other things?"

     "Ranko-san, I said two words, and you would have stood there, and let me beat you to death with a steel pipe.  If you're even half as good as Ranma, I wouldn't last two minutes against you in a school yard brawl," he sighed, "Let me sort it out in my head.  I wasn't kidding, when I told you I'd seen some terrible things.  Are you ready for all of them?"

     Ranko shivered, tried to rub some warmth back in her arms.

     Raccoon looked at her distress, "Can I help you with something, Ranko-san?" he stretched, then instead of relaxing, he stood there, arms extended to the ceiling, he seemed to be surprised.

     For an instant she thought he was pulling a trick, Oh crap!  Well this is what I came for, she grabbed a chair, "Yeah, sit down," she led him to the chair, "Easy, it's right in front of you."

     Raccoon looked leery, but did as she asked, she guided him down.  "Easy, just relax, I know it hurts," she saw the corded muscles in his neck, "I'll get started right away, it'll feel better soon, I promise.  You asked me to trust you, now you have to trust me."  She saw his hesitation, "Please."

     He couldn't nod, he just accepted her actions, until she tried to pull up his shirt.

     "Ahh!" he twisted to pull it out of her hands, "No."

     "But I - "

     "No," he said firmly, painfully, "My reasons.  Please respect."

     Ranko accepted, Nab-chan also insisted that `he`, Ranma, only work on her through her shirt.  She rubbed her hands together, getting some heat in them to start.  She'd start on the spine below the neck, and yanked her hands back from the arctic contact, falling to the ground in shock and pain.

     Raccoon had thrown himself sideways out of the chair, was laying on the floor.

     Ranko clasped and unclasped her hands.  She examined them, the cold she'd felt, should have left them badly burned.  No redness, no swelling or frostbite.  The pain, the memory of the pain was fading.  She glanced at Raccoon.  He was kicking the floor, in pain.

     "Are you all right?  No burns?" she asked.

     "No," he stopped moving, "Should have, burned real bad."  He sat up with difficulty, "This is not fun.  Any scorches?"

     "Scorches?  Frost maybe," Ranko told him, "I've never felt anything so cold."

     "Cold?" Raccoon asked her, she caught the change in tone, and that the muscle spasm seemed to be subsiding on its own.

     Scientist-est mode engaged, all unnecessary systems locked away, Ranko thought, "Yeah, as cold as that, what was it Rit-chan used, liquid . . . "

     "Nitrogen, it wasn't hot?"


     "You didn't use your superfast technique to generate a lot of friction and heat?"

     "No," it was dawning on her, that something neither fully understood, was going on.

     He sat in the chair, facing her, "Show me."

     Ranko rubbed her hands together, then reached out to touch his extended hands, and immediately yanked them back.  It was beyond cold.  She expected her hands to break off and shatter, but they were still warm.  She looked up, Raccoon was acting as if he expected his hands to be burned to ash, but neither of them was injured.

     "I think you just got a clear example of the difference between Ki and mana."

     "Ki?!" Ranko was confused, "You said you hadn't figured out how to teach me."

     "I still haven't.  How long have you been using that technique on Tendo-san?"

     "A few days after she got here.  What's that - ?"

     "And why do you do it?  Does Saotome-san do it?" Raccoon asked.

     Ranko knew she'd not get any answers, until he'd finished questioning her, until he understood it himself.  "I saw she was having trouble, she was in pain, same as you.  Yes, Ranma does it for her, it feels different when he does it for her, she acts different."

     "Would you say you're drawn to it, how about to the other pilots?"

     "Shinji and Asuka, a little, stronger for Rit-chan, after all, I live with Rit-chan."

     He rolled his eyes at that.  "Not Ayanami-san?  Not Captain K, Katsuragi?"

     "No," she admitted, "Not really," she felt a little guilty about Rei, she should at least try to include her, like Nab-chan and Raccoon did.

     "Congratulations, you're manipulating Ki.  I think."

     Ranko had suspected that when he'd first mentioned that, but having it starkly confirmed, was still shocking.  "But it's nothing like the ball of . . . whatever I tossed at Nyogtha."

     "And it has to be that way?" Raccoon asked, teasing her.

     "No, I guess not," she smiled back, "But it's so little, I would notice, shouldn't I?"

     "You're manipulating another body with your energy.  The knots usually just go away when you touch them, right?"

     "Well, I have to do a little work," Ranko said defensively.

     "Let me show you something," he stood and got a piece of paper, returned and held it over her finger, when she nodded, he cut her with it.

     She winced at the pain, then as he pinched the bleeding wound closed, and it vanished.  The ice that flowed through the pain felt good, soothing.  He displayed an identical wound on the corresponding finger of his hand, then it healed very quickly.  Ranko was amazed.

     "That's mana, the energy of magic.  I saw, you felt something more than the feeling of the tissues knitting."

     "Yeah, it was cold.  I mean really cold," Ranko realized he wanted her to reach the conclusion, he wasn't going to tell her anything directly.

     "The energy patterns transferred the injury to me, and I healed it."

     "And I'm doing the same," Ranko realized, "Setting the - patterns - back to their correct order."  She wasn't sure whether she should cherish or dread the realization of what she could do, and the implications.

     "As it stands, I don't think you're doing any harm, but interfering with my energy flows repelled you, because I was already healing the damage, the area was filled with mana, it's a designation for magic's Universal or Dimensional energies.  The interaction you perceived as extreme cold, I perceived as extreme heat.  So you can't help me, without my consciously adjusting my energy flows.  Still, that does mean you could track the mana flows easily, see if they correspond to the flows of Ki your body has.  Get some insights by comparison."

     "You were busy while you were `away`," Ranko joked, "This is all unbelievable, healing by chi, is legend stuff."

     Raccoon shrugged, "I don't know, but if you're interest - "

     "YOU bet I'm `interested`!" Ranko blurted out, then quieted, "How does that apply to . . . what we made our deal about?  I know I haven't gotten my grades up, but haven't I showed I . . . " She withered under his gaze.

     "I stick by my contracts," he announced, "Besides, I haven't figured it all out myself.  I don't know how, or if, the techniques translate, and you have to have fought one of those things.  I don't think a normal human, even one with your abilities, can manipulate the energies."

     That chilled Ranko almost as much as the contact had, the idea she wasn't a `normal` human anymore.  Her expression must have showed that.

     "How much is your humanity worth?  Congratulations, welcome to the realities of being an EVA pilot," he put his hands on her shoulders, "I know you want to be the best, but honestly . . . if you had a choice, I'd tell you to run away, run away and not ever look back."

     "You mean abandon you, all of you?" Ranko had heard Nabiki mention something like that.

     He shrugged, "I survived, they will survive," he sighed, "Ranko-san, this isn't going to be anything other than horrific."

     Ranko nodded, but she knew she would stay, she didn't run away from those flying monsters, even when a slip meant death, she couldn't run out on these people.  She was learning so much: about herself, about himself, about them.

     Ranko was at a dead run all the way home.  She didn't care that she'd get home covered in road dust, and Nab-chan's endless teasing about what she and Raccoon were doing to get all sweaty.

     The understanding of Nab-chan made it worth it.  She wondered if even Nab-chan knew why she was reacting like she was.  She rubbed her hands together until the warmth in them was almost painful.  Held them apart, took aim.  Nothing happened.

     Well, I can't master this in one morning, even Mr. Know-it-all couldn't, she thought, then considered how she was going to get Ranma's historical information from Raccoon.

     "Just ask him, dummy!" she told herself, as she ran up the stairs to the apartment.  She wanted to share this, with Nab-chan and Rit-chan, she wondered if either could help, she touched the instruction sheet she'd tucked in her shirt, the sheet Raccoon had provided, instructions in how to investigate further.

     She noticed the Army soldier standing outside Rit-chan's apartment door.

     "Your ride to school," the soldier said.

     Ranko's good humor disappeared instantly, School, she gloomed, There are more important things than sitting around not learning anything for eight hours. She sighed as she entered, saw her school bag and lunch were packed, even Raccoon's thermos was secured to her book bag.  She stripped off the sweaty clothes and took a quick shower.  Ranma would go to school.  That depressed Ranma as he put on clean clothes, noted that Shinji had rolled up and put away both futons, then folded up the framework, "Misa-chan sure has him trained."

     The man was waiting, and led him to his 'ride'.  Ranma was expecting a jeep, instead, it was a tank, one of the littler ones.

     He was seated in the turret, next to the main gun.

     "We go fast," the driver yelled from his position.  The tank lurched forward.

     It struck Ranma as a rare opportunity, he tapped the main gun, "How does this work?"  He hoped his English was good enough, then he realized you couldn't hear over the noise of the tank.

     One of the crew chuckled, they carefully showed him how to open the back of the gun where the bullets went in, and where the bullets were stored, they were heavy things, five to 10 kilos.  Then the man sitting on the other side of the gun, made him look through a periscope-thing.  Ranma didn't understand all the words, but he understood it was some kind of aiming system.

     It would take some actual practice to be any good, he liked the loader's job, just get the bullets in as fast as you could.  If he had to use a tank, he'd do that, let Nab-chan or Raccoon pick the targets and shoot.  Driving would be a problem.  Even 'Ranma' was too short to both drive and see out, forget Ranko, somebody would have to yell instructions That wouldn't work real well.

     As they pulled into the school, they had caught up with another tank, one of the people-carrying ones he and Rei had ridden in.  Nab-chan, Shinji, Rei, Rit-chan and Maya-chan got out while they were parking `his`, then he climbed out, or would have if Kensuke hadn't climbed halfway through the hatch, the moment Ranma opened it.

     "A Chaffee tank to ride around in!" Kensuke enthused, hanging upside down in the hatch, "A pilot's life is so cool!"

     It occurred to Ranma, as he pushed the gawking boy through the hatch, so he could get out, that they were doing this because of the mortar attack, and the other troubles.  That made Ranma feel nervous, Kensuke might not think it was 'So Cool!' if he'd been under fire with them last Sunday.

     Ranma looked at the other students staring at the tanks, most were either acting like Kensuke, adulation/amazement, or like he was, worry.  There seemed to be little middle ground, Ranma checked the clock, then decided he had enough time to find Kenta and Seisuke.

     Nabiki was helping Rei out of the tank, the girl was still a little out of breath.  None of the girls had enjoyed the hard seats and bumpy ride.

     "Boss!" Hiroko headed over to her.  "Boss, Akagi-sensei.  I've got the totals for the last few days, and a detailed report of what you can do with your job as head of the school, next time you leave me in the lurch like that."  She let out a breath, "Can't these people think for themselves?"

     "In my experience, no," Nabiki told her, "If there's anyone else willing to do their thinking for them."

     "That's really Dr. Akagi!  My God!" came the shriek from behind them.

     Nabiki noticed that Ritsuko looked like Akane had just malleted her.

     Natsumi ran up, "Oh Doctor Akagi, IreadyourpapersonpreparationofdecisionmatricesandBooleanlogictreesandjustlo vedyourworkontheideaofcomputingmachinesbutIthoughtitwasallsciencefictionand your . . . "

     Nabiki tuned the girl out, let someone stroke the Doctor's ego, give her a contrast between a real school girl infatuation, and the way Maya acted.  She also wanted to get Rei away from everybody else, the girl seemed to be going out of her way to embarrass everybody lately.  If Nabiki hadn't physically stopped her, Maya would have run right out of the apartment, in her nightgown.  Nabiki didn't know what Maya and Ritsuko were actually doing, but Rei had concluded that Maya either was or was trying to kiss the sleeping scientist, and started asking questions similar to the ones she'd embarrassed her and Ranma with earlier this morning.

     She was glad Hiroko tagged along, she'd need someone logical and objective, when she confronted Rei.

     "Are you feeling all right, or have you suddenly gone crazy?" Nabiki asked, barely keeping her frustration in check.

     Rei looked at Hiroko, then back at Nabiki, "No, perhaps."

     "Boss, she's just in love.  Don't you remember your first time?" Hiroko asked her.

     "This is different."

     "Boss, I have a crush on someone, sometimes it's all I can do not to give some show, say something stupid, that I know will ruin everything forever."

     "Who is it?" Nabiki asked, concerned that her spies hadn't picked it up.

     "Someone you don't know very well, Boss.  Someone I love quite a bit.  Maybe sometime I can introduce you two.  Ayanami-san, do you think the Boss would like to meet my 'special friend'?"

     Rei stood, considered, "It would be unhealthy not to."

     Nabiki was shocked, Rei knew about Hiroko's 'significant other' and no one had bothered to tell her about it?!  That was intolerable, she had to find out.  From Hiroko's expression, asking the girl directly would be useless.

     "On a more serious note, I had to increase the size of the staff.  I can't do your job myself, I certainly can't do it while I'm doing mine, so I added about 10 more people.  Most of them are already 'eyes and ears', so having them double up shouldn't be a problem."

     Nabiki nodded, she didn't like the additional outlays, or the security concerns, but if she would have to disappear occasionally, they'd need to keep operating.  "Anything from the 'eyes and ears'?" Nabiki wanted the report, then to get Rei alone, and interrogate her.

     "Only the cult, the ones that turned you into animals.  I enlisted the oyabun to look into the mortar attack."

     "That was a gutsy move," Nabiki was pleased with her taking the initiative.

     "Boss, there were rumors already flying, keeping them out would have been dishonorable.  As an eyewitness, well, they were very polite and attentive."

     "They haven't turned up anything," Nabiki knew, "Or those . . . people, would have been shot."

     "Shot, Hell, Boss, if the Yakuza got them first, they'd bury them up to their necks, and charged 10 yen a piece to cut at them with a bamboo saw," Hiroko assured her, "We'd better get to class."

     "I'll be up in a moment," Nabiki told her, took a firm grip on Rei's sleeve.

     Once Hiroko was out of sight, Nabiki glared at Rei, "Who was Hiroko talking about?"


     "Look," she softened her tone, "Rei, if you want something, something special, maybe for Shinji, I can get it for you, or help you pick it out."


     "Well that was the carrot.  Do I need the stick?  You are going to tell me."

     "NO -!" Rei paused, "She knows you love Ranma with all your heart."

     Nabiki wished Rei had just stabbed her instead, It can't be?! "I don't believe you!" she hissed.

     "Her words, I said nothing new," Rei pulled Nabiki's hand off her sleeve, then tightened her grip until Nabiki winced, "Shinji-kun is part of me."  She released Nabiki's hand and walked off.

     Nabiki sighed, felt like crying, Even without Genma around, Ranma . . . and she doesn't dare do anything.  I thought the fiance-go-round was safely buried in Nerima.

     "Oh, Hiroko, I'm sorry," Nabiki wondered how she could ever make it up to her factor, one of the few people Nabiki had ever met, who was as loyal as Ranma.  She wondered at the perversity of things, and why she hadn't seen it, Because Hiroko had hidden it so well.  She's too much like you.

     Shinji looked at Maya taking Asuka's usual seat, and Akagi-sensei taking Raccoon's, he enjoyed the kidding Ranma was getting, like what he'd had to endure, that first day when Misato dropped him off at school.

     'Man, you live with such total babes.'

     'You pilots are so lucky!'

     "You forgot about Ranko-chan," Shinji told Toji.

     "Yeah, that's right, Ranko-sama lives with him too," Toji said, "Why couldn't a real man be so lucky, instead of Saotome?"

     "What was that?" Ranma demanded.

     Toji backed down, "Hey, no offense, Saotome-san, but, I mean all these beautiful girls all over the place, and all you care about is Martial Arts.  I'd be wondering about marital arts, huh?" he smiled as Ranma's frown deepened.

     Shinji suspected Akagi-sensei's hearing was better than she let on, At least she's a little embarrassed about it, Misato didn't mind when Toji and Kensuke practically drooled all over her, Shinji shook his head.

     Nabiki barely beat the teacher to her seat.  The teacher was shocked about Akagi-sensei and Maya being in class, he invited both of them to step outside, and the three had a half-overheard, hurried conference.  The teacher was sweating when they returned, Maya and Akagi-sensei looked smug.

     "Doctor Akagi of NERV has graciously decided to honor us by observing our classes toady."

     Didn't he mean 'today'?  He sure doesn't sound honored, Shinji thought, At least they'll see what we go through during the day.

Heaping Hot Coals

     The pack of index cards flew through the space his head had occupied, as Jeff ducked.

     "What makes you think I need help?!" Asuka shouted at him.

     "You complained about how Captain K was treating you."

     "Who told you that?" Asuka yelled.

     "You did, I was unconscious, I wasn't deaf."

     Asuka's eyes went wide, Jeff took that as his cue to leave.

     Asuka slipped out of bed, picked up a few of the cards.  A kanji character on one side, and on the other, the pronunciation and a few words it featured in, with translations, all in German naturally.  She dropped the cards back on the floor and flopped on the bed, covering her head with a pillow, "He's doing it, AGAIN!" she shouted into the mattress.

     Jeff was heading back to his room when Captain K hailed him, "Zifuri."

     Can't you pick one mispronunciation, and stick with it? he wondered, "Yes, Captain?"

     "Misato," she said automatically, "I - "

     "What is that in your hair?!" he looked at the yellow patch hanging on the side of her head, "It looks like a bird did its business on your head."

     Misato fumed, "Have you seen Doctor Akagi?"

     "Ritsuko?  Not since yesterday, Captain."

     She frowned, "My name is Misato."

     "Are you going to continue walking around with that thing on your head, Captain?"

     "What am I supposed to do, short of cutting my hair off?" she crossed her arms under her breasts.

     "Oh, good grief," he grabbed her jacket collar, "This way, daddy fix."  He dragged her towards the nurses' station.

     "Hey wait, I . . . "

     "Right here, Captain, sit," he pushed her into a chair next to the nurses' station, draped the affected portion of her hair on the counter.  "Ideally, this should be an iron, but any good heat source."  He pulled an office lamp and several pages from a discarded newspaper over the countertop.  "It's differential absorbsion," he wrapped the affected hair in the newspaper, "Heat melts the wax, and the newspaper preferentially absorbs it.  You were looking for Ritsuko to get something to remove this, correct, Captain?"

     He ran the hottest part of the lamp over the bundle, like the ironing of clothes.  "Any solvent would have also dissolved your hair or your scalp."  He rewrapped the hair, then repeated the procedure with the lamp, each pass removed more wax.

     "All finished," he unwrapped her hair, examined it.  "It's a little straighter there, but otherwise undamaged.  You will, of course, have to wash the newsprint out of your hair, but that comes out with soap and water."

     "Do you want to help me with that too?" she asked angrily as she stood up.  Examining her hair for damage, found none.

     "If you believe you need the assistance, Captain.  I'm not exactly busy right now."

     She glared at him and headed off.

     "You're entirely welcome, Captain," he smirked, Ah yes, give good for evil, it's even fun.

     Ritsuko had never been so glad that lunchtime arrived.  She was beginning to understand why Shinji and Asuka did so poorly, she was bored out of her mind in the first period, the teachers even managed to make math uninteresting.

     Apart from the social interaction, she could see almost no benefit to attending school here.  The other students had quickly adapted to her and Maya's presence, the teachers were shocked that a `parent` was sitting in on the classes, frankly, she would have expected their reaction to her presence.  No one enjoyed being critiqued, especially by an expert.

     The trading of lunches was a bit of a surprise, she hadn't expected `her` kids' lunches would bring such interest, she was also getting a little tired of being asked questions she couldn't answer.  She was terrified that they were asking about things that should have been completely unknown.

     Suddenly the crowd pulled back.  Ritsuko glanced behind her, Rei stared at the crowd.  It was her usual placid stare, but no one wanted to be around while she swept it over them.  Rei sat in the desk in front of her, and set a little portable chessboard between them.  Ritsuko was grateful for the break, "Thank you."

     Rei simply continued her setup.

     Ritsuko hadn't considered that Rei could control her presence to such an extent, most people had shied away from her, until the pilots had arrived.  Today, she'd watched Rei participate, albeit silently, and she'd seen her use her presence as a bludgeon.  Ritsuko wondered what they were creating, how soon before the others walked Rei's path, or were they strong enough to make their own, and could they take Rei with them.

     She glanced at Maya, surrounded by a coterie of schoolgirls asking questions, about working at NERV.  Most of her answers, treated it as working at an office, crossed with working at a lab.  She brushed off their questions about secret or sensitive information with a chuckle or a subtle change in subject, far more at ease with these people than Ritsuko was.

     "When are Raccoon and Asuka going to be back?" Hiroko sat down next to her and Rei, seemingly immune to Rei's `aura`.  Ritsuko also noticed Rei gave her no attention, concentrating on the game.

     "It's for the betting pool.  I have to help set the odds," Hiroko whispered.

     Ritsuko wasn't sure, but she thought she saw the ghost of a smirk flash across Rei's face.

     "Soon, it depends on the speed of their recovery."

     Hiroko nodded and took her leave.

     "Hentai baka!" Kenta and Seisuke chorused as they attacked.

     Ranma dodged both easily, "Again, like you mean it."

     His two friends exchanged glances, yelled and attacked.

     Even with his eyes closed, he dodged both easily.

     "You want to tell us why we're wasting our lunchtime in the gym like this?" Kenta asked, "If both of us started yelling 'girly-man' or talking about a wild date with Ranko, that might have an effect on you."

     "Yeah, this is useless," Seisuke added, "I mean Toji's right, all those hot babes.  Hell, Misato was practically sticking her tongue in Shinji's ear that first day, nothing.  I took him for a monk, until he tied up with Ayanami.  They act like my grandma and grandpa now, they're too old to really do anything, but it's spooky they way they act as one person in two bodies.  But you, if there was anyone as unhentai as possible, that's you.  Don't you even care about girls, that way?"

     "Of course," Ranma shot back.

     "'Me thinks he doth protest too much'," Kenta quoted from English class, Ranma couldn't remember who said it, "I mean even Shinji and Raccoon look at girls, like the rest of us, not you."

     "Yeah, so what's this 'Hentai baka' and 'Ranma no baka' stuff?" Seisuke asked.

     "It's a trick Raccoon used, he could have clobbered me, I couldn't move."

     "That guy's just spooky," Kenta said, "He could have yelled 'pork ramen' and did the same.  I'm gonna go finish lunch, and watch the scenery."

     The girls, Ranma translated, "One question, what about Ranko and Raccoon?"

     The two stared at him.  Kenta scoffing at the idea, Seisuke deep in thought.

     "Naw.  Like we said, too spooky.  She'd never get close to him," Seisuke concluded.

     Ranma watched the pair leave.  They were the captains of the Judo and Karate clubs, neither was good enough to give him a decent workout, even the two clubs together weren't.  He also realized, they knew less about girls than he did.  Ranma walked back outside, it felt good to be back with other people, the few days of uninterrupted practice had been enjoyable, but he realized he probably wouldn't have wanted to stay that way forever.  He was still confused, those two phrases, one Raccoon had used, the other kept showing up as an `echo` when he thought about how Ranko had felt, what she'd expected when Raccoon yelled.  She would have stood there, she would have let Raccoon beat her unconscious or hurt her in a hundred, different ways.  It was a reflex, and he wanted to be rid of it, if some Angel figured it out, he could be in real trouble in a fight.  Cats were bad enough.

     Then why did I become a tiger? he wondered, despite Hiroko's belief, it wasn't gender, it was personality.  Asuka was a lion, because she was, it scared him a little that Nab-chan became a bear, the one out of all of them, bigger and stronger than he was.  Although size, strength and speed didn't help you against Raccoon-Coyote did it? Ranma winced at the memory, Next time I fight him, I'm going to make sure both of us fully understand the rules, and agree to them.

     He headed outside, finding out about his history was even more imperative now.  But Raccoon said not yet, Ranma thought, And I'm not sure I could trick him into telling me, or that Ranko could. He got real nervous about the `tricks` he knew Ranko could use on Raccoon.  He shook his head to clear it.

     He wondered if his lack of interest in girls was . . . "No.  I want someone who can take care of themselves, no matter what, that's Nab-chan or Raccoon, and while I'm afraid of both of them, Ranko's only afraid of Nab-chan."  Well, he thought, Maybe I should start using the tricks Raccoon suggested. Ranma marched across the school grounds with a firm purpose.

     Lit class, Ranma glanced over at Rit-chan, who seemed to be deciding whether to fall asleep, or toss the teacher out the window and teach the class herself.  Even Maya was nodding.  Ranma looked down at the notebook he'd purchased, Mirei had suggested writing something, Raccoon had told him to 'document your findings', a fancy way of saying write down all you find out, no matter how trivial.

     Well, the first thing Ranma learned was to occasionally look at the teacher while writing.  Raccoon and Asuka got into trouble for not occasionally staring at the teacher, as if they were paying attention to him, while they were scribbling, whatever they were scribbling.

     Journal of Ki/Chi Manipulation, Entry 1: May 9, 1947

     I figured out today, or at least I discovered I was already doing it.  So now I have to experiment.  Raccoon explained the scientific method, I told him that, oh, Raccoon is Jeffery Davis, I told him why test when I already know the answer?

     'How do you know you have the answer, instead of an answer or no answer?' he's weird, always saying weird stuff like that.

     Anyway, I'm supposed to write down everything, success, failure, accurate observations, ideas, guesses, educated guesses, everything.  'It doesn't have to be neat, but it has to make sense,' so I can go back and study it.

     My first test was mapping Raccoon's energy paths against my female form's, oh, I change from a girl to a boy.  There were only two major differences, kind of obvious when you think about it.  Making babies would need a lot of chi, so would feeding them.  Otherwise, it was pretty much the same.  It was easy to find the cold from his energy, then find the patterns in me. I think I have been feeling other people's energy isn't where it's suppose to be, but I wasn't aware of it consciously.  But I was drawn to correct it.

     Now that I have an idea what to look for . . . yes, Raccoon, I need to run some experiments.  Sheesh.

     I already ran one: I snuck up on Nab-chan and, that's Tendo Nabiki, anyway, I touched her, and she tensed up and got defensive, until she heard my voice, then the tension went away.  I can't map the exact changes, but I felt there were changes.  Maybe when I've mapped my own Ki I'll be able to guess what the changes mean in others.

     The second time I touched her, just brushed her shoulder with my hand like the first time, I made sure she knew it was me before I touched her.  I don't think there was any change, but I have a feeling there was.  I need more practice.  I did the same thing to Rit-chan and Maya-chan.  Rit-chan was like Nab-chan.  Tense then relax when she didn't know/found out, and no major reaction when she knew.  A slight change in Maya-chan, but I couldn't feel any difference between the changes.  I don't think I'll test Ayanami or Shinji, I want to live.  Well, that's all for now.

     Ranma set aside his pen, it sounded stupid, he sighed.  He couldn't imagine actually writing all this stuff.  He glanced at the sheet Raccoon had given him, Well, it was for a good cause.
     "I think I lost about 100 IQ points.  I used to love Literature," Ritsuko said, she had waited until the teacher had left.

     Nabiki chuckled.

     "Let me get to those tanks, before I change my mind," Ritsuko said, "Where's his office anyway?"

     "We have to live with it," Ranma reminded her.

     "Wait a bit," Nabiki told them, "I have to finish up a few things."  Like talking to Hiroko.

     Rei said something to Shinji, they collected Maya and left.

     Nabiki nodded to Hiroko, as the other three left the room.  She led Hiroko upstairs, "I've found out who this 'special person' is."

     "Boss, I think you're bluffing."

     Nabiki frowned, "Look, it isn't like I don't know, I've seen this before," Nabiki paused, "It . . . " I'm no good at this, "I don't want this to destroy our friendship.  I've seen people fight over this, it's stupid, but it's human."

     "Boss.  Don't worry about it.  I'm not a screamer, I don't throw things.  I don't want to hurt you either.  Why do you think I haven't said anything?"

     Nabiki nodded, Saotome, if you hurt her, I'll take you apart.

     The ride home felt a little strange, I don't like riding in an armored box, Nabiki thought.  But Shinji and Rei had to be dropped off while the Chaffee rode escort.

     "So will this," Nabiki tapped the top armor, "Stop a mortar shell?"

     "Even a heavy tank's can't stop it, but we really are for protecting against fragments.  Speed protects against mortars," the Marine crewman answered, in disjointed Japanese.

     "This unit isn't as fast as the other one," Ranma said.

     Only he'd want to go faster, Nabiki thought the ride was shaking her kidneys loose.

     "The fastest is the Hellcat, but this one's an amphibian."

     "That means the water stays on the outside," Nabiki teased.

     Ranma glared at her.

     Asuka was glaring at her dinner companion.  The food she was served, left a lot to be desired, so did the `entertainment`.  Misato was nattering on about her catching up on her schoolwork.  Asuka was just glad she'd managed to hide the flashcards before Misato found them.  She also couldn't figure out why Misato was making such a big deal out of this, it wasn't as if these classes mattered.  Asuka suspected it was important to Misato only because of how it reflected on her, Captain Katsuragi was afraid of being told she was a bad parent.

     You aren't my parent, Asuka thought, You aren't my `guardian`, Spineless and Pen Pen look after you, more than you look after us.

     "You haven't said much, Asuka."

     I couldn't get a word in edgewise, Asuka silently replied.  "I was considering hitting you on the head, and swapping dinners," Asuka replied.

     "Normally you don't like my cooking," Misato said brightly.

     You didn't cook it, even your cooking has more flavor than this, Asuka looked at the rice and plain vegetables, bland didn't even begin to cover it.

     "You getting sweet on Shinji?  Teaching Rei how to romance him?" Misato missed Asuka's horrified expression.

     Should I give you lessons?  You've already got Kaji, but he doesn't seem to think so, Asuka stifled the angry retort, remembered the Dragon's advice, "Is that an inappropriate action, Captain?"  She hid her smirk, as Misato stiffened, as if Asuka had jammed her with a pin.  "If it is, I'll desist immediately," Asuka continued.

     Misato frowned at that.

     Asuka kept her head bowed slightly.

     "I didn't mean that," Misato replied angrily.

     "My apologies," Asuka replied, fought to keep from grinning as Misato growled.

     "I thought you'd gotten over your latest snit," Misato shouted and stormed out.

     Asuka waited a few moments, then looked up, "At least she left her food behind."  Asuka grimaced at the choices, but spaced out with the bland, Asuka managed to stomach the spicy concoction.

     You want little robots, Captain? Asuka thought, You'll get robots.  All I have to do is answer 'What would Wondergirl do?' and instant robot.

     Ritsuko wondered what the galvanized trash can had done, to deserve the beating it was getting from Misato.  Misato's blows had crushed it down to less than 1/3d its original volume.  Misato was panting, still glowering at the lump of metal.

     "You better finish it off," Ritsuko told her, "They're most dangerous when they're wounded."

     Misato glared at her.  Ritsuko watched her remember the last physical exchange between the two of them.

     "Where have you been all day?" Misato angrily asked.

     "Looking after the kids," Ritsuko said.

     Misato's shock was amusing, but Ritsuko decided not to twist the knife.

     "I wanted to see the actual classrooms, to better determine what's wrong with Ranma."

     Misato's shoulders slumped.

     "Do you want to tell me?  And how did you get the wax out of your hair?" Ritsuko asked.

     Now Misato hung her head, mumbled something about 'ironed', then fell silent.

     Ritsuko felt a little sorry for Misato.  She remembered Asuka-lion charging to Jeff-coyote's defense, even though she wouldn't have stood a chance against Ranma-tiger, They've been double-teaming her, she realized, remembering how angry Misato had gotten when `interviewing` Jeff in the cell aboard the Coral Sea, all his 'Captain' and 'sir' had infuriated Misato.

     So you want to be their best knock-around friend, until you have to be their commanding officer, now they're treating you as their commanding officer all the time. "You could always apologize to her," Ritsuko said, watched Misato wrestle with the problem.  To her disappointment, Misato just walked off, as if it wasn't a problem, or no part of it was her problem.

     Ritsuko sighed and continued on, to check on her patients.  She was beginning to understand the kids had a greater depth than she had originally considered, but not all the time, sometimes they acted as immaturely as she had expected them to act all the time.  An absolute single standard would never work.  And since their respect is the only real control mechanism we have, if we lose that, we lose our only real defense, she thought, Summary execution may be a real-sounding threat, but it assumes we can catch and hold them, long enough to actually carry it out.  Or we'll have the means to carry it out despite them, and survive the retribution of the others.

     She considered asking the Commander or Kaji to intervene with Misato, then decided that would make the situation worse.  "I'm not dealing with three full-time children, I'm dealing with seven part-timers."

     She also considered that it was also simple stress, for weeks they'd lived under constant threat, there had to be a way to break the cycle.

     "Well, are you still causing trouble?" Ritsuko asked as she entered Jeff's hospital room.

     "You heard about the cards?" Jeff asked, "Getting the wax out of the Captain's hair?  Talking with Ranko about her problem, that's a lot like your problem?"

     Ritsuko shook her head, she hadn't known about those at all, "I'll definitely say that's a 'yes'," Ritsuko sighed, "What did you tell Asuka to do to Misato?"

     "I didn't tell her anything, mistreating the Captain, would be inappropriate."

     Ah, ha! Ritsuko thought, "Her name is Misato, but you don't call her that."

     Jeff shrugged as Ritsuko took his temperature, blood pressure, pupillary reaction to light, etc.

     "Why don't you call her that?  Please remember that I can start to take your temperature rectally."

     "It's inappropriate to be so familiar with a superior officer . . . Rit-chan," he smiled at her wince, then continued, "I don't even know Admiral Simson's, Captain Ramsey's, Commander Fuyutsuki's or Colonel Stedman's first names.  Nor would I use them under normal circumstances."

     "And when she asks to be called 'Misato'?"

     "It's still inappropriate.  You can be Doctor Akagi, Doc, Ritsuko, or Rit-chan under fairly predictable conditions, Captain Katsuragi stipulates to being called Misato, and disciplines when she is called Misa-chan, even when she was just being Misa-chan.  Besides, when does she stop being our commanding officer?  I haven't seen it, for more than a few minutes at a time."

     Ritsuko remembered Ramsey had removed his rank insignia when he was umpiring aboard the Coral Sea, and did it so people could see him do it.  I wonder if I told Misato, if she'd try it, Ritsuko thought, Better question, would she even listen? "You might try meeting her halfway."

     "When I see she has any inclination of stepping towards me, I'll consider it.  Her attitude is very much 'I am in charge, and you are not.' Whoever 'you' is."

     Ritsuko frowned at that, Misato merely assumed everyone thought and acted like her, wanted to do and be how she was, She's not commanding, just thoughtless and overbearing, Ritsuko shook her head, she realized both of them, Asuka and Jeff, were taking the safest route, especially after Misato blew up at them.

     "After all, I know what those five lumps at the base of the entry plugs are, one false move, and she gets authorization to push the button."

     Ritsuko froze at that, "What do you mean?"

     "Eight pounds of either torpex or PETN with aluminum powder as a shaped charge, all converging on the command chair.  It just does your heart good, knowing you've got a battery of heavy antitank guns aimed at you, while you're doing you're job, risking life, limb and sanity, for God and Country.  The aluminum is a delightful touch, if the projectiles, concussion and blast, from the shaped-charges don't get the pilots, being in boiling L.C.L. will," he smiled at her, "Assuming they actually work."

     That's supposed to be so secret no one outside the Joint Chiefs and the senior command staff knows about it!  Even Admiral Simson hasn't been told! Ritsuko tried to put on a neutral mask, "And how did you hear this crazy story?"

     His smile disappeared, he stared at her, "Because I know the Commander, and Captain Katsuragi, it's how they think, who they are.  Now when should I start calling her 'Misa-chan', through my most sparkling smile?"

     "Never, I guess," she was shaken.

     "Doctor, don't feel too bad, I didn't when they rejected my suggestion to put a concussion charge in the plugs, in much the same place.  I thought that disabling the Axis pilot would be sufficient as a deadman's deterrent.  So yes, I know them, I know them very well.  You people are going to have to get your stories straight.  Are we the few, rare, valuable saviors of humanity from this ancient evil?  Or are we kept ignorant and vulnerable, because we are so dangerous?"

     Ritsuko turned and left.  She was beginning to understand the friction between Misato and 'Raccoon', he accepted with tolerance the hypocrisy that got most people through their lives at NERV.  However, he constantly pointed out that hypocrisy.  She wondered if he actually knew, or if he only thought he knew what was going on here.

     As she drove home, she wondered if he assumed that the environment she tried to create at home was just another control mechanism over the pilots, "How does anybody get that cynical so young?"

     She wondered why she was doing it.  Fumbling around worried about grades and homework, lunches, laundry, sibling fights and mother-daughter rivalries.  She knew the last was her real source of friction with Nabiki.  The girl didn't want to be 'mothered', didn't want to replace the mother she'd lost, before the Pacific War, according to her bio.  But that didn't explain the odd push-pull relationship.  Nabiki seemed to resent being treated as a child, and resent even more when Ritsuko didn't act like a parent.

     Ritsuko was glad she'd managed to get a jeep, instead of a tank, she needed the fresh air and wind in her hair, to help her think, "What to do this weekend?" she asked, "No picnics, unless we hold them on the deck of the South Dakota, 20 miles out to sea."

     Nabiki approached Ranma, he wasn't sure, but he thought he was in trouble.  Rit-chan and Maya-chan had gone, and they wouldn't be back for a while.  That left only the two of them alone in the apartment, together.

     "So, Saotome, should I just spread myself on the floor, or should we use your bed?"

     "Huh?!" Ranma was shocked, even more when Nabiki pressed against him, pressing him against the wall, her fingers on his shoulders.

     "You've been touching me all day.  I assume you want something."

     Ranma was aware of how Nab-chan felt as she was touching him, how much of her was touching him, and how she looked this morning, how she'd tried to find words not to hurt him, and that maybe Rei had realized the same thing that Raccoon had.  He was frightened of Rei, yet she had been careful to do nothing threatening, whatever she said.

     He couldn't get Nab-chan out of his mind, how different parts of her turned different colors as she blushed.  He shook his head, trying to get thoughts of this morning out of his head, almost impossible with Nab-chan pressed in close, staring at him like that.  I mean, she's got nothing I haven't, he thought desperately.  The tension in her was the hardest part to ignore, he couldn't figure out if she was mad enough to fight, or so scared she wanted to run away.

     Well, since I'm going to get pounded anyway, he signed, and was immediately aware of what the movement did to her and him.  "Uh, I thought, that is . . . " You KNOW she's going to get mad and hit or yell at you anyway, you might as well just say it as you see it. "You looked like you needed it, you've been worried about everything so long, I'm no good with words, so since you like me touching you, I did that."  He looked down into her eyes, he'd felt her anxiety increase as he talked.  "Now you're going to belt me for being a hentai, cause I liked it."

     He watched the look of absolute fury cross her face, the stress build to a fever-pitch.  He closed his eyes and braced himself for the impact, just hoping he'd survive.  He expected a knee in the groin as the opening, considering how he'd been reacting to Nabiki's close contact.  Her hands closed on his head, pulling it down, the impact on her shoulder was a whole lot softer than he expected.  One hand kept holding his head against her shoulder and neck, the other encircled his waist.

     "Ranma no - BAKA!" she was so angry, her voice broke halfway through.

     That he expected, it fit the pattern.  But the rest?

     "I don't want to hurt you.  I just don't want you to hurt yourself either," she told him.

     He felt the tension bleed out of her, smelled the fear sweat and the faint floral scent of the perfume she sometimes wore.  It felt completely wrong, as if the world had stopped revolving, he didn't want her to hit him, but saying what he said, then not getting hit . . . he couldn't fathom it.

     "I do want your help with something, Raccoon was helping showing how he and Ranko were different."

     "Excuse me?" Nab-chan asked, "OOO you are a hentai," she dropped her hands to his butt, and pulled him close, "I'm so happy!" she told him in a sultry voice.

     His thoughts scattered to the four winds as he tried to get control again.  "It's about KI!" he blurted out.

     She moved her hands to his waist, "Aaannnnd?"

     "I found out some of the differences between boys and girls, but I want to see how a girl is difference, differENT, from another girl, maybe I can check Maya-chan and Rit-chan, see how they're different and the same," he managed to get out without stammering too much.  He looked at her, he wasn't sure what she was thinking, she wasn't tense, and wasn't relaxed.

     "Who are you, and what have you done with Saotome Ranma?  Tell me, or I'll hurt you," she smiled widely, not a friendly smile, "I'll bite you, there's a precedent for that."

     Ranma started sweating, as Nab-chan chuckled, then she pulled his head back to her shoulder, she rocked the two of them side-to-side, saying nothing.

     He wasn't sure what to do, feeling a little dissociated from reality by events.


     Ritsuko wasn't sure what she'd walked into.  Maya and Nabiki were lying on the couches that they had pulled to the center of the room.  Ranko would run her hands above a part of one of the girls, then the other.  Scribbling something in a notebook, touching herself in the same place, then scribble again.  A simple command to move a leg or an arm, both girls moved the same way, as Ranko's hand hovered over the girls checking the area moving and other seemingly unrelated areas on all three.

     Ritsuko said nothing, merely watched.

     Ranko noted her, "Oh, hi, Doc.  I'm just running an experiment," she told her.

     Ritsuko felt her eyebrows crawling towards her scalp in amazement, "Who are you, and what have you done with Saotome Ranma?"

     Ranko slumped, "I'm not dumb.  Raccoon told me about this 'Scientific Method'," Ranko held up a paper.  Ritsuko could see it was covered with Davis's neat handwriting.

     "So I'm running experiments on Ki manipulation," her finger scanned down the paper, "Uuum, yeah right here, obtain a baseline if possible.  I'll need your help with some other work, but I guess I wanted to get started."

     "You're volunteering for time in the lab?" Ritsuko asked, she was considering she'd arrived at the wrong apartment, maybe in the wrong universe.  Then she brought herself up short.  Ranma/Ranko wasn't stupid, just uneducated, Ranko was probably following the instructions she had, exactly.  She walked over, examined the jumble of notes, she hoped Ranma could understand what it meant.

     "That's just notes, it's not done yet."

     "I think I can show you how to put this in a more understandable format," she was feeling a little boggled, the chuckles from Maya and Nabiki didn't help, they'd been hammering simple concepts into Ranma for a week, and they just bounced off.  Somehow, Ranma had the basics of running an experiment by scientific method from just a page of instructions.

     "Okay, let me get some of my old notebooks, to show you how to set your data in a more understandable way."

     Ranko set down the paper, "Okay, but not yet."

     Ritsuko went to get a couple of her notebooks.

From the Journal of Saotome Ranma

     Nothing much before, finally got something to write.  I ran the experiments.  I got a lot of information, Rit-chan calls 'raw data', Raccoon had a different name.  I like 'raw data' cause now I have to cook it, looking for patterns, looking for flaws in the patterns I'd expect.  Raccoon's notes say this is the longest, hardest part.  Rit-chan agrees.  That's why she's constantly 'running tests', and we only get tested every few days.

     I think she flipped out when I told her I was manipulating Ki, and that it was the first step to figuring out how I did, what I did against Nyogtha.  It still spooks me that I know the thing's name, and can spell it correctly, even though nobody ever told me.  Like the other one was Rhan Tegoth.

     One other thing that I'm glad of, I think the close contact with Raccoon, I think `Ranko` is a lot less friendly with him, that and the tension she automatically caused in him every time she touched him.  I remember that ghosts have 'cold' Ki, I guess it's because they use mana instead, so at the back of my mind, I kept assuming that Raccoon was a reanimated corpse, considering what happened, I couldn't get it out of my head.

     It dampened some of Ranko's feelings.  I still don't understand the difference between my two forms, I can understand why people react differently to me, why would I react differently to them?

     There's little difference between Ranko and Nab-chan, Maya-chan was slightly different.  'Look for similarities and differences.' Her age, and she's not a martial artist.  I don't know why Rit-chan wouldn't let me `map` her, it would have been useful, and I wouldn't have to touch her.  Learning to feel the flows and patterns of Nab-chan's energy, was useful in figuring out when she's really angry/emotional and when she's acting, I can't figure out which strong emotions she was feeling.  Maybe later.

     Rei opened her eyes, she felt the cozy, silk pillows, she was still tired, she let herself relax into the warm softness.  She recognized the trap rug, although it wasn't `on`, so she could leave anytime she wished.  She had nowhere in the Dreamlands she cared to go just yet.

     "You had us worried," Alwyk told her, "He isn't here."

     Rei relaxed, "I should go."

     "Rest.  You've been here a while.  We took the urn back, Dragon's orders I'm afraid," Alwyk said.

     Rei noted she was clean and dressed in red, silk pajamas, she decided nothing was perfect, "Is he all right?" she asked.

     "A bit of a temper, but it has nothing to do with you."

     Rei relaxed, let sleep take her.  She doubted the Meliorist would attack her in her sleep, "The mortar attack," she murmured as darkness enclosed her.

     "We have to increase resources in the field," the Dragon told his comrades, as they met in the huge meeting hall contained inside the impossibly thin tower they had taken.

     Anna and Asuka were considering, it was obvious who would likely be sent: dragons who could take human form.

     "I thought the Council had forces in place," the Meliorist pointed out.

     "They were annihilated," the Dragon said, "The idiots, the Council hasn't been able to agree on replacements."

     "Do we have the resources in the field already?" Anna asked.

     "I don't think we can arrange for your transfer," the Meliorist joked, "Besides, we don't have the EVAs for seven pilots."

     "What about Tendo's organization?" Anna asked.

     "They have no real sorcerous aspect, and no trained counterintelligence, counter-terorism, or even a strike arm," Alwyk told them, "And no likely candidates."

     "What about the Allied military?" the chief cartographer asked, he didn't have a vote, but they wanted all the minds here for the discussions.

     "The U.S. Military's vow is to protect and defend the Constitution, that is a long-term goal, it may hurt the Children in the short-term."

     Nabiki walked into Raccoon's hospital room.  Ritsuko and Ranma were off in the lab, jointly running tests, rather than attending the Saturday half-day of school.  The idea itself was jarring beyond anything she'd ever considered: Ranma as a scientist, even a very junior one.  Nabiki had come here after the tank dropped them off at headquarters, to get some answers, then she'd continue to school.

     "Are you going to stand there trying to shake your head loose, or are you going to come in?" Raccoon asked.

     Nabiki caught sight of the watches, walked over to them.  She opened them together, listening to the synchronized tunes.

     "Scotland the Brave," Raccoon told her.

     "Like I said, quite a family resemblance.  The older one looks just like you.  Both look like their, mother?"

     "My older brother Samuel and my mother," Raccoon said quietly.

     Nabiki was aware how closely he was watching her, she knew enough to be very careful here, "What makes these worth dying for?"

     "When I was six, Sam nine, we got these, they were to be ours on our eighteenth birthdays.  They were lost sometime between my brother and my parents' deaths.  It was the last gift from my grandfather, and the last really happy time before my brother died.  Maybe I'm stupid for wanting that, for having possession of an object manipulate me," Raccoon shrugged, "So I was stupid, and manipulated, it's not written somewhere, that I have to be perfect."

     "It just doesn't seem like you," Nabiki replied, setting the watches back on the table, "And there's a lot of that going around."

     "Ranko-san was curious about how to investigate something, I wrote a procedure.  As much as I think he acts stupidly, Saotome-san isn't stupid, Ranko-san's definitely the brighter of the pair, by a wide margin.  She'll eventually get a good enough feel for the procedure to leave out the steps that don't apply.  Right now, a rigid form is probably the best."

     Nabiki stared at him, "I guess I just never looked at it that way."

     "People around here, tend to hear what they think should be said, and see what they think should be there."

     "Except you?" Nabiki raised an eyebrow.

     "I'm an engineer, our job is to turn dreams into reality.  I have to know the difference between what is true, what is real, and what is factual."

     "It's too early in the morning for thoughts like that, I'm going to school."  Nabiki left.

     Ranko walked up to Raccoon, as he practiced on the roof of the medcenter.  She recognized the slow fencing moves, practiced with his walking stick.  She didn't know how to open the subject politely, "Would you be interested in learning how to fight?  Better?" she hastily amended.

     "I guess you heard," he replied.

     "I heard you nearly got killed," she replied.

     "Not nearly," he replied.

     She'd watched him fall, and the unsuccessful efforts to sustain him.  Part of it was Ranma's, her, fault, she felt.  If he'd been trained, Tulzscha would never have gotten its attack in so successfully, "You can still get better."

     "You studied for years, so did I.  What can you possibly show me in, a few weeks or a few months?"

     It was the same question, almost the same words, he'd asked of Ranma, before Ranma beat him up.

     She searched her memory, then smiled, "Kneel down.  I can show you something today.  It may take a while to master, but it will have an affect on your fighting and your magic, today.  Not much to start, but it will build."

     He stared at her, set his stick beside him as he knelt.

     She knelt next to him, facing his side.  She put one hand on his solar plexus, the other on the small of his back.

     "Getting a little fresh?" he asked, "I thought we cured that."

     She felt a slight cold form under her hands, she ignored it, "No," she said, "Breathe from your center, instead of through your chest.  Also, learn a different pattern of breathing."  When she felt he was breathing through his center, she moved her hand to his throat, feeling his pulse.

     "Okay breathe in," waited four pulse beats, "Hold," for two pulse beats, "Breathe out," for four pulse beats, "Breathe in and out as completely as possible."

     She stayed that way, calling the beat, until she was satisfied he could do it on his own.

     "A little dizzy," he smiled.

     "You aren't used to breathing properly, it will pass.  Once you're used to it, you'll have a lot more energy, and more clear thought, and you'll heal quicker.  From what you and Dr. Akagi have said, more oxygen is better."

     He nodded, Ranko smiled, he did look a little wobbly.

     "Satisfied?" she asked.

     "I take it you want to teach me Martial Arts, it's urgent to you, am I right?"

     Ranko nodded.  Patience, she warned herself.

     "Why?" Raccoon asked, "I neglected to ask your counterpart, much to my regret and Shinji-san's."

     Ranko worried at that, then had to think.  She knew what she wanted to blurt out, 'You were me, I want to know.' She also knew it might scare him into never revealing what she wanted to find out.  Beyond that, she didn't know.  She was aware that Martial Arts was important to her, and she wanted it to matter to the others.  They understood it was important to Ranma/Ranko, but had no influence on them. She wanted to change that.  She also had a strange bond with Raccoon.  He hated Ranma, but he wasn't alone in that.  Rei hated him, as much as she hated anything.  So did Asuka.  Shinji was afraid of him, which was almost worse.  He couldn't figure out how Nab-chan felt about him, it seemed to change moment to moment, but it always ran strong.

     But Ranko . . . Ranko could trust Raccoon, he wasn't safe, not at all, but Ranko could trust him not to drool all over him, . . . her, and tried to teach her.  Unlike the teachers at school, he taught her enough she could continue learning on her own.  He pushed a lot harder than she was comfortable with, but never to the breaking point, and more often than not, in the direction she wanted to go anyway.

     This simple affection, and the expectations of excellence that went with it, touched something inside Ranma.  He wanted to do well, he wanted approval for doing well.  Being without a sensei, didn't feel right.  She also felt she owed him, for the lessons, for the acceptance.

     For being the one place `she` could run, to hide, to get answers and explanations.  But how did she put that into words.  Especially words that didn't sound too mushy, ones that didn't make her sound like a smitten schoolgirl, a complication neither of them wanted, for their own reasons.

     "It's important to me," she said, "So are you," she added quietly.

     "Is my fighting that bad?" he asked.

     Ranko sensed the trap.  She knew how proud of her own skill she was, and expected Raccoon was the same.  "Compared with me, or regular people?" she asked.  Getting a smile in return.

     "Touche.  I'm sorry for putting you on the spot.  I don't like not trusting people, but around here . . . I can trust almost no one."

     Ranko nodded, uncertain what to say, Was his knowledge of the curse enough, that when he finally sees it, will he assume `she'd` been lying to him?  Or does he already know, and is trying to square it in his own mind? she sighed, More complications. "So we can train in the dojo?"

     "No," he said quietly, "The dreams are good for training the mind, the muscles have to be trained in the Waking World.  Like when you were me, your techniques didn't work, but my techniques did, correct?"

     "Yeah," she patted the back of her head nervously, "How'd you know about that?  Kinda weird that."

     "Ranma told me, when I was `away`," Raccoon smiled, "Everybody assumed that since I was asleep, I was also deaf.  Believe me, I was well aware of what was going on."

     She paused to think, "So can you tell me about it, I mean if you were me, I mean . . . I don't know what I mean."

     "You aren't ready to hear it all.  One thing I will tell you, don't meet Nabiki-san's parents, they'll make you marry her, or one of her sisters.  Honor, don't you know."

     Ranko frowned at that.

     "I fulfilled that honor by marrying Ritsuko," Raccoon smiled, "It gets weirder and darker from there.  I told Doctor Akagi and Maya a little about, our, ahem, wedded bliss.  You might want to talk to them about it."

     Ranko could see the pain on his face, swiftly hidden.

     "But you also learned it, the Art I use," she waited for him to nod, "But why can't you use it?"

     "Because it's all `book learning`, the muscles still need to be trained."

     She smiled, "So, do you want to start now?"

     "No.  I want to finish my practice, then later, you can show me the basics.  Let's see if you know how to teach."

     Ranko smiled again, glad that she could do something to contribute, something that the others would accept.

     Jeff was wondering how his room had become the new meeting place, on this early Sunday morning.  He had already decided to let the two `sides` get to loggerheads before he struck.

     "That's a girly film!" Ranma complained.

     "It's a nice movie!" Hikari shot back.

     Jeff was glad the girl was standing up for herself, he also watched the changing players and alliances.  Toji wanted to support Ranma without opposing Hikari, Nabiki and Shinji were trying to figure out some kind of compromise, each independently, not realizing the other was working on it as well.

     "What, watching one little movie will destroy your precious manhood?" Asuka attacked.

     That decided it for Toji, "We just don't want to waste a Sunday. There's some real good - "

     "Real dumb!" Asuka interrupted, as she and Toji went nose to nose.

     "Before you two consummate your relationship!" Jeff shouted, forcing an embarrassed silence between the pair, and quiet snickers from the others.

     "Hokari-san, Hiroko-kun, would you like to see a movie with dance and unrequited love?"

     Shy nods.

     "Langley, Shinji-san, how about a movie full of classical music?"

     Wary exchange of glances.  "Yeah, okay," Langley said.

     "Toji-san, Kensuke-san, how about a battle, dinosaurs eating each other?  Sound good?"

     Kensuke nodded enthusiastically, Toji looked sullen, but wasn't arguing.

     "Ayanami-san, Saotome-san, how about an epic contest between Evil and Good?"

     Saotome-san and Ayanami-san exchanged confused looks, not realizing their similarities.

     "And Nabiki-san, the tickets are already paid for."  Jeff pulled the envelope from his coat pocket.

     "Oh yes!  A wonderful movie!" Nabiki chirped with joy, then gave him a gimlet eye, "How are you going to arrange this little bit of sorcery?"

     "Funny you should mention sorcerers," Jeff handed out the tickets, one to each person, "The movie is on the Naval Base, so there will be ample security.  And there will be little language barrier."

     Shinji smiled as Rei clung to him tightly, the 'Night on Bald Mountain' scene had frightened her.

     "Who would have thought you could do cartoons like that," Shinji said.

     "Fantasia has always been my favorite," Raccoon said, finishing off the popcorn he'd purchased, he offered his arm to Hiroko, who considered, then took it.

     Then Hiroko took Nabiki's, Nabiki in turn took Ranma's.

     Shinji offered his other arm to Hikari, she then added Toji.  Neither Toji nor Ranma understood, but weren't willing to fight.

     Kensuke and Asuka exchanged looks, then both started laughing, they weren't willing to walk arm in arm with each other.

     Their military guards stayed close enough to intervene, but far enough away, to preserve the illusion of a free day.

Bad Day

     They walked around the school, Nabiki watched each one trying to work some of the kinks out.  Asuka and Raccoon had recovered enough to go to school, but they both looked a little green after the tank ride.

     "Jeff," Nabiki waited for a private moment before confronting him, "Who are Henry and Rica Lincoln?  Were those the people who wrote the will you were in, and had to attend to?"  She discarded subterfuge and subtlety.  "What you `didn't` go after that night, it killed them, didn't it?"

     "Your conclusions are entirely logical," Raccoon replied in a composed tone, "And I don't want to discuss it.  They were good friends, they're dead now," he sighed.

     "Like Sam and your parents."

     Raccoon scowled, "What did you do?  Wait until I was unconscious to rifle through my personal effects?"  His voice was tightly controlled, but she could feel his rage.

     "I caught Misato and Ritsuko going through - " Nabiki said, "If you want to talk about it . . . I'm willing to listen."

     "I'll censor my first reaction, say 'thank you', and thank you to stay out of my personal affairs."  He stopped, "Quit trying to get close to me, Tendo Nabiki-san.  Our business arrangement is quite sufficient.  Now and in the future!"

     "'Everybody who gets close to me leaves or sends me away,'" Nabiki said angrily, "Sometimes it's just coincidence.  You aren't responsible."

     "What isn't in the set of photos, are the pictures of me and the other two American pilots, and the six British ones . . . I should have spurned their insistence we socialize, they might have lived longer."  He turned and marched off.

     "You can't blame yourself for that!" Nabiki shouted, then lowered her voice as she caught up, "It's just a coincidence, you said it yourself, this is a dangerous occupation."

     "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, FIFTEEN TIMES, that's directed action."  Jeff increased his pace.

     Yeah, your manner surely drives people away, Nabiki considered, Makes people avoid you like the plague. She'd never seen him so angry, but he wasn't angry at anyone except himself.

     Nabiki was following Raccoon as they headed into the classroom.  Nabiki immediately realized she should have kept a closer eye on Asuka.  Asuka was standing near Shinji, who was blushing furiously.  Most of the other people in class were laughing at Asuka and/or Shinji.  Rei was looking from one to the other.  Hikari was snickering into her hand.  Hiroko gave Nabiki a look, that told her she'd just walked into a hornets' nest someone had finished whacking with a stick.

     I hope Rei hasn't continued saying embarrassing things, Nabiki thought.

     "You just admitted it!" Toji laughed, "So, was she any good?"

     Nabiki noted Ranma's arrival, she signaled him to follow her.  She considered kicking Hikari as she passed, the girl was the class president, and was supposed to be Asuka's friend.  Yet she couldn't see the pain on Asuka's face, or she thought it was funny.

     Raccoon circled in from the other direction, Nabiki hoped to defuse the situation, before there was a homicide.

     Shinji's eyes bugged out as Asuka dragged him out of his seat, and kissed him.  He was more surprised than hurt, when she broke off the kiss, and shoved him back into his seat.  What surprised him, and everyone else in class who was silently watching, was Rei standing up, and silently slapping her fellow pilot.

     "Okay, dolly, you asked for it," Asuka rubbed the red mark on her cheek.  Her fist traveled perhaps an inch before Nabiki's hand grabbed her arm.

     "No, Asuka, she's hurt.  So are you," Nabiki told her in a reasonable voice.  She got an elbow in the side of the face, for her reasonableness.  She crashed through several desks, she glanced at Ranma who seemed frozen.  Her head was still ringing, she felt more like throwing up, than standing up.

     "Keep your hands to yourself, Tendo," Asuka shouted at her, "Nobody tells me what to do!  Not you, not the invincible Shinji, nobody!"  She turned to face Raccoon who had approached.

     "You keep claiming to be a grown-up, and yet you act like a spoiled brat," he told her, he was shaking with rage, "You aren't so old I can't turn you over my knee."

     "You wouldn't dare!" she said hatefully.

     "You know better."  His anger replaced with cold composure.

     Nabiki could see only disaster unfolding before her, she couldn't clear her head fast enough, and the others seemed unwilling to intervene.  The only movement was the non-pilot students clearing the field.

     Asuka hit him, as hard as she could, he took the punch in the face, blinked once, then grabbed her head by her hair, bending her over his upraised knee.  One, two, three, only the sound of the swats was heard.  Everyone watched in a terrible fascination.  Nine, ten, and Raccoon shoved her to sit in a chair.

     "Does everybody put up with your violence, because they like looking at you?  The same reason as the Captain?  Well not me, not any longer.  You two aren't human beings, you're just comely mean-streaks we plug in, and send off to go kill things.  It's good that's all you want to be, 'cause you're no good at living, or anything else.  You two just hurt everybody around you who's weaker, and kiss up to anyone stronger.  Kiss up and shit down!"  Raccoon seemed to notice Asuka's outrage and trembling lip, "Oh, is Langley-dolly going to cry to Captain K about mean ole Raccoon?  Boohoo?  When you beat up everybody, and never expect to get some of your own back, who's the stupid one?  Poor little dolls all broken inside, now going to cry.  I expected better of you, at least.  You're a real disappointment, Asuka."

     Asuka covered her face with her hands and ran from the room.  Raccoon took his seat, he looked furious and sick to his stomach, both at once.  Nabiki had regained her feet with Hiroko's help.  She had watched the goodwill of the last few days evaporate in an instant.  Hikari stared reproachfully at Raccoon.  Nabiki wished the girl had intervened before this spun out of control.

     She was angry she'd been taken out of things so quickly, a cooler head might have influenced the course of events.  She'd always thought the disasters in and around Nerima, only needed a bit of reasonableness and awareness to avoid, now she'd sat there and watched one of them unfold.  She hadn't seen it coming, nor had she acted properly to stop it.

     She looked at Raccoon, sitting there in a fury, At himself, at Asuka, or all of us? She looked at Ranma who was glancing from one pilot to another, with a look of complete mystification on his face.  He doesn't know how this happened any more than I do, Nabiki thought, And he doesn't know why.

     Jeff saw the reproachful looks from the others.  He admitted he deserved them, I should never have lost control that way, I could have hurt her a lot more than I did, and a lot more than I intended to.

     He hadn't the faintest idea where the rage had come from, he'd had a headache ever since he'd woken up that morning.  But that's just making you short-tempered, not stupid, he reminded himself.  That Ranko and Nabiki had been relentlessly picking at things he'd really wish to leave buried, hadn't helped, but when Langley had . . . he should have just been irritated, not so furious he could barely think straight.

     At least it should get back to the one who really deserves it, he smiled inwardly at that.

     He noticed Nabiki surreptitiously checking her teeth, he wanted to offer her some comfort, but between his own growing headache, and her hate-filled looks, he wasn't inclined.  Ranma looked like he wanted to kill him at the earliest opportunity.  The way he felt right now, he might let him.  The rest of the class seemed to be divided into for, against, and the majority 'I want no part of it.' The arrival of the teacher ended any chance for anything further to develop.  Hikari's voice cracked during her 'stand, bow, sit' speech.  Jeff figured there would be a reckoning before the end of school.

     Nabiki left before lunch, she had a few loose teeth that kept bleeding, Ranma went with her.  Rei had asked Shinji to take her home, he'd gratefully agreed.  If Hikari had vengeance planned, Jeff's continuing foul mood curtailed it.  That, and the two huge black eyes that had developed as the day went on.  Jeff toughed it out for the rest of the day, he didn't want to go home, and get an earful from Ritsuko, Nabiki and Ranma, no matter how much he agreed he probably deserved one.

     It was pouring rain by the time school let out.  Jeff decided since he had nowhere else to go for the moment, he'd go let off some of his anger before he had to go be civilized.

     The gym had a few items that the Karate and Judo clubs used regularly.  He thought it was not the least amusing, that both groups abandoned the gym in haste, when he walked in, "And you accused Langley of picking on the weak."  He changed into his gym uniform and began a workout.

     He acknowledged that the Saotomes were his superiors in any form of hand-to-hand combat, Probably Tendo as well, but I've `lived by the sword` for longer than they've been alive. Compared with `normal` people, I'd hold my own. The workout had attracted a few of the Karate and Judo club back to watch, none of them offered to spar.  I'm probably still scaring them.

     An hour later, he'd run out of strength and anger, his headache had gotten worse if anything, as if activity had exacerbated it.  Perhaps it had, Jeff realized he wasn't thinking as clearly as he should.  He didn't hear Maya come up behind him.

     "What are you doing here?" she asked politely, in a `tolerant` voice.

     "That is the question, isn't it?" he sighed, "Trying to get in the right state of mind, to accept the punishment I know I deserve and am going to get.  It just doesn't seem to be working, I'm less angry, but my head hurts worse."  He turned to face her.  She grimaced.  "That bad?"

     Maya reached out, and very carefully touched his nose, he backed away with a sharp cry, then staggered and swayed.

     "Oh, that was not a good idea on my part."  He held his head, afraid it was going to explode, or fall apart.

     "Your nose is broken, and I think you have a concussion," she told him.

     "Langley hits harder than I thought," Jeff admitted.

     "Come with me, I'll help you change, then drive you to the infirmary."  She draped his arm over her shoulder.

     He was too dizzy to protest, "Do you drive like the Captain?" Jeff asked.

     "No, nobody does.  Why?" Maya asked.

     "I just want to know if I'm going to ride with my head out the window," Jeff replied as he walked unsteadily to the locker rooms.

     Nabiki watched Raccoon stagger in, with the black eyes, he looked like a raccoon, and he was looking rather green, He's drunk, was her first thought.  Misato had been grilling her and Ranma about the events of the day, for nearly an hour, after the NERV dentist had checked her teeth for permanent damage.

     It hadn't been easy answering Misato's questions, with a mouth full of cotton packing.  Misato's mood was growing fouler by the moment.  Nabiki knew it was unfair to say, she was angry at having to punish one of `hers`, since only the 'Second Three' had been hurt, but that explanation, would fit the profile all too easily.

     Misato rounded on Raccoon immediately, "Do you have any idea what you've done!?"


     She shook him, "And what do you intend to do?"

     "Captain," Maya warned.

     "What?  What's he going to do?" Misato shook him again.  Raccoon answered her.

     Maya leaned out the door of the infirmary, calling after the cursing Misato, "Nausea is a common side effect of concussion, Captain."

     "I'm not winning anything today," Jeff rinsed his mouth out, looked around for a mop.

     Ranma chuckled, "As bad as you looked walking in here, your head could have fallen off, and she would have kept screaming at you.  You should have done that to Asuka."

     "Ranma!" Ritsuko shouted at him, but Maya and Nabiki were chuckling.

     "Asuka, you make me sick!" Nabiki announced, and laughed.

     Maya whispered something to Ritsuko, she instantly won her war to keep from smiling, and frowned as she led Raccoon to a low bench.  She got a tray of tools.  The flashlight was first.  Whatever she saw, she didn't like it, a very careful touch of the area around Raccoon's broken nose, and his reaction made up her mind.  "Maya prep him for a complete skull series, the damage is worse than I thought."

     "How can you tell?" Ranma said.

     "Ranma!" the woman yelled at him.  He shrank back.

     "I agree," Raccoon chimed in, "Stealing my lines, no class!"  Ritsuko and Maya shook their heads.

     Nabiki saw that Misato was on a slow boil by the time Raccoon walked out of the x-ray room.  Nabiki and Ranma noticed she stayed a good two meters away from him, at all times.

     "Well, that's two pilots out of commission," Ritsuko announced, "Two minor skull fractures."  She put up the x-rays, indicating the breaks in Raccoon's and Nabiki's bones.  Misato was still furious, but she was trying to be reasonable.

     "What happened?" she asked.

     "I lost my temper," Raccoon replied, "When she grabbed Shinji-san, I thought she's just being cruel.  Then she tried to hit Ayanami-san, and did hit Tendo-san, I told her to grow up, then she hit me.  I lost my temper.  I was so angry, it was like being outside watching this crazy person scream at her."

     "Are you willing to apologize?" Misato asked.

     "If she is, to everyone, pilots and classmates," Raccoon replied, Misato frowned.

     She'd been hoping to get others to apologize first, Nabiki thought, And force Asuka to work up to it. I gave much the same answer.

     "How are you feeling Tendo-san?" Raccoon asked, he looked worse now, then when he walked in.

     "Cracked cheekbone," she said, hiding her anger, "I should have expected that elbow, I just didn't."

     "I should have spanked her in front of the whole class, the first day she laid a hand on any of us, I apologize, Tendo-san," he bowed.

     Misato seemed to be sputtering.

     "She's lucky you laid into her the way you did, deprived me of any plans of revenge.  I may never forgive you for that," Nabiki told him gravely.

     "That's enough.  You're supposed to be a team!" Misato told them.

     Nabiki took Ranma's and Raccoon's hands, "We are a team, there's only one prima donna."  That's you, Nabiki thought, Captain, you're rubbing off on her.

     "You don't follow orders," Misato countered.

     "I follow your orders," Ranma told Nabiki, "Don't I?"

     "You'd better," Nabiki said.

     "This isn't funny."

     "Don't say anything," Nabiki warned Raccoon, who put both hands over his mouth.  "Captain Katsuragi, considering Jeff and I are in the infirmary, and Rei and Shinji might have been too, and someone else is only feeling picked on, I think you're screaming at the wrong people, person."

     Misato quickly realized she was facing a united front, Nabiki could see she thought what Asuka had done was inexcusable, but what Raccoon had done in return was worse.

     "Damitsu, I suggest you prepare a written apology, to Asuka and the rest of the class."

     Raccoon nodded.

     "I'll talk to Asuka," Misato left.

     "Words fail me," Raccoon cursed.

     "That's a mouthful," Ranma crossed his arms, "So, we're in trouble again.  What were you thinking anyway?"

     "Would you believe I wasn't?  Yes, I was in trouble," he looked at Nabiki and Ranma, "Now we are, not smart, either of you."

     "Deservedly so," Ritsuko said.

     Nabiki suspected she hadn't intervened because 'it wasn't her place', it also made her disciplining them later unnecessary.  For which I and she are grateful, Nabiki thought.

     Ritsuko called Maya over to the x-ray, "Maya, do you see this?"  It was a dark spot on the x-ray with an odd `halo` around it.

     "Is it 1.3 centimeters across, and wedged between the cerebellum and the Pons?" Raccoon asked with the air of someone answering a question for the hundredth time.

     "Yes."  Ritsuko stared at him.

     "It's a previously diagnosed pilonidal cyst, in this case, they think it's an unborn twin," Jeff told them, "It's too close to the spine and brain structures to be removed.  It hasn't changed since it was first diagnosed in 1943."

     "Maybe it's causing your sense of humor," Ranma said.

     "At least I have an excuse," Raccoon shot back, "What's your's?  Sorry."

     Nabiki shook her head, the two of them fought more than Asuka did with anyone, yet they never had a problem working together, she wondered why, Maybe because they both can fight back, making it a contest of equals, or at least a contest.

     Misato had assembled Asuka and Daifisu in the conference room, the other pilots were watching from the sidelines.  Misato watched the pair, like a pair of cats wanting to fight, but neither sure about who should deliver the first blow.  She also had the terrible thought that she'd need the other pilots to separate them, if they started fighting, before they killed each other.  Misato was realizing having them here together, was a very foolish idea.

     "You had no right to do what you did!" Asuka shouted.

     Misato scowled, her plan gone up in smoke.  Ranma tensed, she'd need his help in a moment.

     "You gave me the right," Daifisu replied coolly.

     "How do you figure that, you hentai baka!?" Asuka shouted right into his face.

     "A cavalry commander I respect, once explained, 'To maintain discipline, punishment for an infraction must be applied swiftly, without apology, and a clear link between the violation and the sentence must be made.  It's good advice, and it works.  Would you care to comment?" Dafisu asked mildly.

     Misato watched Asuka go ashen, when Dafisu had started speaking, then livid, when he asked for comments.  With balled fists and gritted teeth, Misato thought Asuka would throw herself at the boy to pummel or kill him.  She braced herself to physically intervene.

     Instead, Asuka said mildly, "You're right," turned on her heel, and marched out with her nose in the air.

     "That went rather well," Dafisu tipped his hat, "Excuse me, Captain."  He walked out.

     Misato frowned, "My name is Misato."  She glanced at the other pilots, who seemed as perplexed as she was, "How does he do that?" she shouted.

     Jeff caught up with Asuka. "For what I said, I apologize, Langley.  I lost my temper, that's no excuse of course," he told her in Greek.

     "And spanking me, in front of the whole class!" she started quietly, and ended with a shout, also in Greek.

     "Oh, that you deserved.  Picking on Shinji and Rei that way, that's beneath you.  Besides, I thought you'd forgive me.  Especially because it made sure neither Rei nor Nabiki would take counter action."

     "How do you figure I'd forgive you?" Asuka demanded.

     "You told Captain K what I said?"

     "Every - single - word!" Asuka turned and hissed at him.

     "Then you got to roast our good Captain's hindquarters, you even got to watch," Jeff told her with a smile, "And she didn't stop you, probably insisted you continue, and she won't blame you in the least."

     "You complete and unutterable bastard!" she breathed.

     "I'm glad you appreciate it, and I am glad of your help in this."

     "Klugscheisser, als ob DU die Weisheit mit Löffeln gefressen hättest." [Know-it-all (evil), as if YOU ate wisdom with a spoon.]

     Asuka knocked his 'Stupid hat!' off his head, and pushed him down, "I HATE YOU!!"  She walked away.

     Jeff picked up his hat, replacing it on his head, and waited until she was ten feet away to yell, "I know that."  He looked `up` from where he was sprawled on the floor, at Maya and Ritsuko, who had heard the shouting, and wondered if they would need a medic or a priest.

     "You'll notice she used no closed fists this time.  Dramatic improvement, I'd say."  He stood, tipped his hat, brushed himself off, and walked away.

     "Misato's right," Ritsuko said.

     "He's crazy?" Maya asked.

     "No, I need a beer."

     Rei had decided to dispense with her injuries, enough time had passed, that little comment would be made.  So Rei approached a rail line that crossed her route home.

     She knew the schedule of the passenger and freight lines by heart, so she crossed over the rails, and sat a few yards away.  She knew that in two minutes and 10 seconds, for a few moments she'd be blocked, sight and sound, from her watchers.  The fast freight thundered by, five seconds late.  Then she stood and returned to her apartment to eat and sleep.

     Asuka wasn't happy when Raccoon found her again, she wasn't hiding, she was just staying near the base, in case there was an alert.

     "You should contact Ayanami-san."

     "I'm not going to apologize to that - "

     "Fellow pilot, I just said contact her, she's feeling vulnerable right now.  Just point things out, put them in perspective.  Remember, I didn't say apologize, you did."

     She knocked his hat off his head, again, and stormed off.

     Asuka couldn't believe she was doing this.  Invoking the Meliorist to her, was dirty pool.  Worse was revealing he'd used her to run an operation against Misato, worse still, it had worked beautifully.  Despite her defiance, Misato had reduced the pressure she'd been applying to her.  Misato was actually sympathetic, Probably because she has something else to focus her anger on.  Raccoon you take too many chances.

     She knocked on Wondergirl's door, wondered if even a flamethrower could clean the yuck off it.  She remembered Spineless had mentioned it, and the lack of answer.

     Asuka sighed, and barged in, "Hello, I - Oh Gott!"  Now she remembered the other thing Spineless mentioned, Wondergirl ran around her apartment with no clothes on.

     Rei froze on seeing her.

     Asuka thought fast, "I wanted to congratulate you.  I was hoping you'd pick up on the game.  You hit me harder than I expected, but, well, it probably did Spine . . . Shinji some good, two pretty girls fighting over him."  She watched Rei's hostility change to confusion.

     "Like when you were a mountain lion," Asuka tried to explain, And I was a real lion.

     Rei still looked confused.

     "Tokyo to Wondergirl!  I'm NOT interested in him the way you are, but only you need to know that."

     Finally, Wondergirl stopped being tense, "Thank you."

     "Don't mention it," Asuka told her, "To anyone.  Let Spine - Shinji think, well . . . economics: anything under more demand, is more valuable, do you understand?"


     "So I artificially raised the demand, he's still yours, but he sees himself as more valuable.  Understand?"

     Rei nodded.

     Asuka was glad to get out of the filthy apartment.  She was tempted, next time Wondergirl disappeared on her secret missions, to collect all the pilots, and clean the place.  Nobody deserves to live like that, she thought as she walked home.


     Dr. Akagi picked at the last of her dinner, she glanced at Maya and her three charges.  She was glad the day was finally over.  The last straw was the results she'd gotten on Jeff's medical tests.  She didn't like those at all.  The skull fracture shouldn't have caused the blood changes she had seen.  The sensitivity to light was unexpected, simply turning on the light in the room he was in, raised his blood-pressure 10 points and his temperature 3 degrees C.  She reminded herself, it didn't excuse his behavior, but it might explain it.  The continuing 39 C fever was worrying, but she'd seen no reason why she should keep Jeff in the medical wing.  None of the other doctors could formulate any explanation, except blood poisoning.  The preliminary blood tests confirmed it, there was something else in there.  She took more samples, and gave them to the Navy labs to do complete work up on.  Preferably before morning.

     No one knew the biological half-life of the L.C.L. components.  But the other medical experts agreed with Ritsuko, they wanted the fever kept down, push fluids, and check for any other symptoms.  Most importantly with the concussion, no sleep for at least 24 hours, then only closely monitored.

     She hadn't expected such a difficult patient.  She should have, but she hadn't.

     "I am not going to do that," Davis said adamantly.

     Ritsuko glared at him, he proved as invulnerable to her glare as to Misato's and Gendo's.

     "Doc," Ranko piped up, "I gotta agree, resting in the furo while staying awake, sounds kinda a dangerous."

     "That is not the point," Davis enunciated each word.

     "So are you going to keep an eye on him?" Nabiki teased.

     Ranko blushed, nodded, "That's what we do, isn't it?"

     "Absolutely not - " Davis stood.

     "I agree," Ritsuko silenced him, "As chief medical officer, I'm ordering it."

     The four women watched Jeff surrender.  That in itself worried Ritsuko, he quit fighting because he'd run out of steam.

     "Don't be so worried, Japanese bathe together naked all the time," Nabiki told them.

     "That I will not accept," Davis rallied.

     "I agree," Ritsuko glared at Nabiki, who subsided.

     "I'll wear a swimsuit," Ranko said, daring Nabiki to say anything, then considered, "I'll have to borrow one of yours."

     Nabiki frowned at that.

     "I withdraw my previous objection, but I'll rest alone," Davis managed, Ritsuko thought he was fading faster now, he wouldn't be able to argue much longer.  He'll argue until he passes out though, she thought.  "Wear a full set of clothes, if it will make you feel more comfortable.  Heat transfer is the key," she told him, "You'll be soaked through fairly quickly.  So don't wear a three-piece suit."

     Jeff looked put upon, but he acquiesced, a sure sign of ill-health from any of her three charges.

     When Davis left, Ritsuko turned to Ranko, "Why?" she quietly asked.

     Ranko sighed, "It should have been me in Unit 04, not him.  I should have seen Ayanami-san wasn't following."

     "You owe him," Nabiki said, Ranko nodded.

     You aren't the one who owes, Ritsuko thought, But the one who does, will never acknowledge the debt.

     "Besides," Ranko stood, "I know better than you do, how a guy feels, when he's that helpless, and loses control."

     None of the three wanted to argue.

     Asuka sat in her personal dreamspace.  Davis called them dreamscapes, except she rarely used hers, so it hardly needed so grand a name.  Today, she didn't want to dream as the Meliorist.

     You wanted to sulk, she told herself firmly.

     The place looked like a cross between a clockmaker's shop, a small library, and a coffee shop.  The room was filled with the steady tick-tock of dozens of clocks that adorned the walls, tucked in between the bookshelves, all of different styles, some keeping the time of other planets, other places.  The workbenches with their neat racks of tools patiently waiting.  The tea she drank as she read, felt good, going down hot and bitter.  She could have sweetened it, Hell, I could have made it hot chocolate, she thought, but she had chosen not to.

     "He called me 'Asuka'.  He actually called me 'Asuka', like I've told him to for years," she didn't know why it made her feel the world was ending.  She understood that her behavior had been unacceptable, and that Raccoon had turned the whole thing into a knife, to plunge into Misato's heart.  But he had called her Asuka, Misato would never understand why that hurt so much, maybe Anna would, but no one else.

     She smiled at the expression on Misato's face, when Raccoon quoted the Meliorist to her.  "She thought I was going to kill him."  She got another cup of tea.  Where'd that statue of Pallas Athena come from? she wondered, then she realized it was wearing a gunbelt, and had red eyes.

     She gave no sign, until she vaulted a workbench, desperately trying to reach the weapons' rack.

     The spear shaft blocked her progress, mere meters away from her goal.  She turned to face the apparition.  The soft eyes and gentle expression belied that this was the creature of her deepest nightmares.  When she saw Wondergirl, all she could remember was this monster.  Nearly 3 meters tall, soft sensuous curves that made Misato look like a gawky 10-year-old, the Grecian-style robes and plate armor that seemed as much a part of the creature as its alabaster skin, long blue hair and soft red eyes.

     She whimpered in spite of herself.  The thing had been chasing her for years.  Only glimpsed at a distance, never where others could see it.  It made her feel inferior the moment she laid eyes on it.  She knew her hatred of Wondergirl was partially due to the similarities, although truthfully, comparing them was like comparing a Rembrandt with a kindergartner's crayon copy.

     She balled her fists, gathered her wits.  In the waking world, she might be no match for Saotome or Tendo, but she was in dreams, her dreams, and she'd killed with her bare hands before.  This thing would find her no easy meat.

     It reached out at her, she prepared a counter attack.  This thing extended a Colt Peacemaker and gunbelt, hers, butt-first.

     "What kind of trick is that?" she shouted.

     "Shinji-kun, Spineless, is in desperate trouble.  I alone, am not enough.  I need assistance."

     "Wondergirl?  You really are Wondergirl?" I may kill her, just for that!  What did I ever do to you, Wondergirl, that caused you to chase me all over the Dreamlands and Waking World for nearly ten years?! she couldn't ask.

     "Only as far as you are the Meliorist, we have little time," the voice, like a lover's whisper, and the pleading tone touched her.

     Asuka shook herself, "Okay, nightmare, if you aren't enough, what good am I?"

     "As I am, I might prevail, and harm him, as would the Meliorist, none other are available."

     "I have one person I can call, discreet help," Asuka said, This is insane! You know it's a trick!  It's been stalking you for years, and you're going to trust it? "No," she said quietly as she picked up a strange amulet, two pieces of mica sandwiching what appeared to be a piece of blackest stone the size of her palm, a pledge given substance.

     "All right, let me get some other things," she wanted the armor sized for her, and the sabre-halberd.  The whole idea still filled her with dread, but she couldn't let Spineless die, because she was afraid, however properly.

     Ranko was uncomfortable in Nab-chan's swimsuit, but Rit-chan's were just too big.  She'd told Nab-chan it was too tight at the hips, pinched her bust something awful, and had a lot of room at the waist.  Maya-chan had nearly killed herself, laughing at Nab-chan's expression.  None of that had been completely true, but after Nab-chan's constant teasing, she'd decided to start cautiously hitting back.

     The furo heater was on low, and Ritsuko-sensei had demanded she monitor the water temperature and Raccoon's skin temperature every 15 minutes and every hour respectively, and make sure he drank plenty of liquids.  And didn't pee in the furo, she looked at the eight liters he was to drink.  Ranko thought of the other reason she was here, helping him in and out of the furo.

     She hadn't told anyone, she had another motive.  The dream worried her.  The aftermath of the killing the monster, 'Ranma-Jeff' had picked his way back across the grisly floor covering.  He'd taken several days to confirm it, some of those faces had been NERV employees.  One, rather thoroughly violated and mutilated, faceless corpse had worn a weird, star necklace, like the one Misa-chan wore.  He didn't think they were very common.

     The other aspect was that Asuka and Nab-chan had been like a couple of spooked cats, always staring at the other.  From whispered comments and some asides, he proved they'd 'swapped', Asuka had gone into Nab-chan's past, and vice versa.  Then Raccoon had all but confirmed he'd gone into Ranma's past: Raccoon now probably knew more about his parents, friends, history, everything about him, and her, than Ranma did.

     Do my parents miss me?  How did I get my curse?  And what reduced Raccoon to tears? Ranko almost believed the last wasn't possible.

     As she adjusted the suit, she remembered thinking that Raccoon would never talk to Ranma about it.  But he'd pried enough embarrassing secrets out of Ranko, she could demand a little return candor, she would insist on it, she also had a few tricks to use as well.

     Besides, it's your fault that he'll never talk to Ranma, she accused herself.  It was weird, finding a use for the curse, spying almost, it just felt weird.

     Raccoon entered, wearing a robe that covered him from throat to ankles, and sleeves to the knuckles, "No questions, or orders or not, I leave."

     "No questions?" Ranko's heart sank, and confusion increased, Raccoon would talk your ear off, about nearly anything.

     "About what you're about to see.  I figured you had ulterior motives for this."

     "I agree, but you can't hold it against me, if one of my questions was from before my promise," she said, "I don't think my motives were ul . . . ulter . . . "

     "Ulterior, hidden, usually hidden for bad reasons."

     That's sounds more like the Raccoon I'm used to, Ranko stepped into the furo.  It was warm, but below skin temperature, and well below neutralizing temperature.

     Raccoon nodded, and dropped the robe, revealing the T-shirt and long shorts he wore, "It isn't just prudery."

     Ranko was staring at the scars on his legs, at least six big ones, and a bunch of smaller ones.  "This isn't a question," she said.  To tear her stare away, she looked at his face, he looked worried, "You told Asuka a horse turned over on you, in June?  Of 1945?"

     He nodded as he climbed over the rim, Ranko had to stabilize him, as wobbly as he was.  Ranko caught sight of another scar high up on his left arm, encircling it.

     It worried her that she was asking about April of 1945, and he got hurt in June of 1945.

     He lay down in the water, she could feel the heat coming off his skin.  She felt really way-out doing this, but she trusted Raccoon, or rather, Ranma knew his girl-form was safe around Raccoon, felt safe talking to him about anything.  When she asked about things only a boy would be interested, he'd smile, answer the question, `knowing` she'd go tell Ranma.  Who was too proud or stupid to ask.

     She rested his head in her lap, keeping his face above water.  When he relaxed, she felt anxious about doing this, all the girls at school talked about `romantic` dates with boyfriends, or dates they wished their boyfriends would take them on.  She wondered what they'd think about this, If they ever found out . . . I have to remember to threaten Nabiki before we go to school. She suppressed her shudder, she didn't want to disturb him, I'm a NURSE! she told herself, I've got a doctor's orders and a patient, and everything!

     She had to admit, she was cold in the water, he was radiating heat like a furnace.  She took his skin temperature, marked it on the little chalkboard Ritsuko had given her for that purpose.  She thought about how to best broach the subject, decided to just go ahead.  "The dreams we had Sunday night."  She felt his neck muscles tighten.  "I was at Harvard, in April '45.  There were demons all over the place, you were fighting them."

     The silence dragged on for a while, it worried her.

     "Yes," he finally said, she thought he'd taken a punch, from the way he said it.

     "I'm guessing that Asuka and Nabiki traded places, and I was you and . . . ?"

     "I was you," he paused again, "And Ranma.  I think I've got it sorted out in my head, what do you want to know?"

     She sighed, relieved, "Everything.  Everything you can tell me.  If you were me, you know more about me than I do."

     "It was a parody, it had to have been.  First, it wasn't your past, it was your future, you were 16 years old.  Believe me, unless you could take control of it completely, it wasn't a future to look forward to.  The curse worked exactly as described.  Gendo, as your father Genma, changed into a Panda Bear."

     "Gendo was there!?" Talk about a nightmare, trapped with Gendo!

     "There were three Tendo sisters, Kasumi, Nabiki and Akane.  The year was 1992, that's ninety-two, and your father, and theirs, affianced you to one of them," Raccoon continued to describe his/her travails and battles, without Ranma's martial arts skills, but with the reputation of a master.  He had to depend on magic and cunning, neither was completely effective.  The troubles with other students as a female, mirrored Ranma's own.  She got a few ideas about dealing with it.  The relationship with Nabiki-Ritsuko and Kasumi-Misato was an odd one, and he could hardly believe his mother would act that way.  Or that Gendo would suddenly become a human-being when his wife showed up.

     Raccoon stopped suddenly, and unexpectedly.  Right in the middle of telling how Akane, Ranko, Gendo, Kuno and his Amazon wife, had been holding off the horde of outraged suitors and general nuts, until Jeff-Ranma and Nabiki-Ritsuko could get officially hitched.  Ranko had been diligently doing her job, while Jeff had been telling her the story.  If it had been anything like Ranma's real past, and the bits and pieces sounded `right`, Ranko could understand why Ranma didn't remember, With my luck and lack of social skills, they would have thrown him to Akane's 'tender mercies', and my injures would almost support that.

     The silence had gone on long enough to worry Ranko, from the way the tale had gone, `Misato-Kasumi` was having a relationship with a doctor, and Raccoon was chasing 'Nabiki-Ritsuko'.  That worried Ranko a bit, made Ranma jealous, Maybe it's because he knows Nabiki and Akagi-sensei he went after them.

     Ranko looked closely, Raccoon was - crying?  Even after seeing it twice, Ranko still considered it an impossibility.

     She was almost afraid to ask, "What happened?"

     "Gone."  He wiped his eyes, "Wife, kids, all gone."  He sat up and moved away.  "Figures," he covered his face again.

     Ranko didn't know what to do now.  She couldn't imagine where the pleasant story, Well, relatively pleasant, would go so wrong that would cause such a breakdown.  She knew what Raccoon had done when she was in distress, he'd made sure she knew she wasn't alone.

     Ranko couldn't do that, You're not secure enough in your manhood to start to hug another man? she cursed her cowardice.  Then steeled herself, I'm not a guy now, I'm a girl, now, she felt as skittish as when she'd faced the wall of cats.  I'd better not wet myself here, she moved slowly, to where Raccoon had retreated to, watched him silently sobbing.

     "I'm here."  I hate this! "I won't leave."  I can't believe I'm doing this. She was terrified he'd turn and hug her, Like that idiot Kuno or his wife Shampoo. She extended a hand, I act like I'm trying to grab a red-hot stove, she felt silly about the tentativeness.

     "Yes.  You will," he said calmly.  "Everyone does, one way or another.  I apologize for embarrassing you with my foolishness.  I should have known better."  He got out of the furo, "Henry and Rita, those good kids."

     Ranko nodded remembering that he kind of liked them.

     "They got married, moved to San Francisco, they were murdered.  You will leave, everyone does.  Although my enemies get some help," he headed for the toilet, completely calm and composed.

     Ranko had admired the calm he could 'put on', seemingly at will, now she wondered if it were really so admirable.

     He had a home, a family, she remembered, His 'wedded bliss', 'Gone . . . , all gone.' How long was that dream, months?  It sounded more like years! Ranko considered the ends she'd just gone to, over a family she didn't even know she had, humiliating herself for any scrap of information, he'd lived it, all of it. Wife, a kid, maybe kids, all taken away, except for the memories.  And all closed behind the same door in his mind. Ranko sighed inwardly, she knew how much bottling things up had cost her, actually him, Raccoon and Shinji's friendship, almost Nab-chan's.  She let that thought drop.  Knowing all this hadn't helped, while it all sounded `right`, none of it told him what would happen if he wasn't there, or implied he'd ever left.

Shinji's Relapse

     Asuka was a bit disgusted, she'd hoped that Spineless would have bounced back after the dreams.  They'd won the `Western`, they'd done well with the stupid cultists.  Instead he backslid.  The little town and the rail line surrounding it, were overrun with the white, long-eared `spider-rabbits`, all wiggling their cute, little pink noses at you, until they attacked.

     The Dragon landed nearby, "Be vwery, vwery quiet, I'm hunting wabbits," the huge creature said in an Elmer Fudd voice, then laughed.

     It gave Asuka chills.  "How many have you killed?"  There seemed to be no end to the things.

     "Too many, and not enough," the Dragon answered, "My recommendation would be to evacuate the source, and fight any that come with."

     Asuka nodded, "I'll get Spineless.  Can you cover our retreat?"

     "Of course, where are you going?  Don't say the Dreamlands."

     Asuka felt her guts tighten up, there was only one alternative, "Does Wondergirl even have a dreamscape?"

     The Dragon smiled, nodded, and leapt into the air.  Asuka looked at the sabre-halberd, it was covered in blood, halfway up the haft, she'd been busy.  That didn't bother her as much as going to where Wondergirl's will and desires would, or might, overwhelm hers.  She almost wanted to stay behind and fight.  The girl frightened her more than those things closing in on them.

     The revelation about Wondergirl still staggered her.  No spell or charm held the creature at bay.  Her terror at this thing relentlessly pursuing her was more terrifying than death in battle.  Sometimes she had thought she saw it in the Waking World, a glimpse of a nightmare.  No threats or pleas would it answer.  It simply was, a living, breathing example of what she could never be, nothing human could be that strong, that beautiful, that stealthy, that poised.

     Yet she also knew the instant she accepted the inevitability that she was second-rate as a woman and as a warrior to this thing, she would die.  It would wait until she was alone, step out of the darkness, and tear her heart from her chest.  Wondergirl wouldn't even need solitude or darkness, only orders.

     And the way Captain Katsuragi has been acting, she would give the order, if she knew she could, Asuka thought as she looked around, found where Shinji had hidden from the Dragon.

     "Come on Spineless, up and at'em."  She hauled Shinji to his feet.  He wasn't very good with any weapon, although he was a good shieldman, guarding her back as she fought.

     Rei crushed the life out of two of the things that threatened Shinji-kun.  The temples and villages were overrun with these small, furry monsters.  She had seen the Dragon and Asuka fighting them with Shinji, she hadn't believed that they knew she was here.

     Then the Dragon landed near her.  After her dream, she was still terrified, but she could at least talk to him.

     "Prepare your dreamscape, we retreat to there."

     Now she was terrified, her dreamscape.  The Dragon stared at her, there was no hostility, but the gaze prevented her from protesting, before it leapt back into the air, to destroy concentrations of the things.

     Exactly like the battle we fought, she thought as she left Shinji-kun's dreamscape.  She didn't want the others in hers, especially not Shinji-kun and the Second Children.  The Dragon hadn't given her any choice.