Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 18-19 ( Chapter 9 )

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

Chapter 18: Freedom and Healing
     Dreams Rebuilt
     Monday Monday
     Into the Depths

Chapter 19: Truth Beyond the Veil
     Nobu no ni Haiku
     No Good Deed . . .


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)

Like everyone who is not in love, he imagined that one chose the person whom one loved after endless deliberations and on the strength of various qualities and advantages.

Marcel Proust, Rememberance of Things Past, Cities of the Plain, pt. 1

Chapter 18: Freedom and Healing

Dreams Rebuilt

May 19, 1947

     Shinji looked at the ruins of his dreamscape, and fell to his knees in despair.  The rabbit-spiders had eaten everything edible, and sampled everything that wasn't.  The locomotive had bites taken out of the main drive wheels, even the rails had pieces nibbled out of them.

     He glanced up at Asuka, who was looking down on him sternly, and Rei, who seemed as disturbed by the destruction as he was.

     "Look, Spineless, don't marinate yourself in misery over what they destroyed," Asuka said severely, "Just fix it, then you can go back to enjoying it."

     Shinji pouted at that, it was Asuka through and through, practical, almost but not quite, to the point of heartlessness.  "I'm not sure I can," Shinji said.

     "You built it in the first place," Asuka retorted, staring at him, "Rebuilding it should be easy.  Right, Wondergirl?"

     "Yes, it will be easier," Rei agreed, "Unless you wish to alter or improve it."

     Shinji had the satisfaction of watching Rei put Asuka off-balance.

     "Well, do you want to do a redesign?" Asuka snapped back.

     "I don't know," Shinji admitted, he liked how the place had been arranged, he actually wanted it back exactly how it was.

     "Then put it back!" Asuka ordered.

     Shinji was wondering if the furious expression on Asuka's face indicated she was reading his mind.

     "If it works," Asuka continued, as if explaining to a child, "If it does what you need, there's no reason to change things."

     That surprised Shinji, Asuka always was complaining about things not being good enough.

     "Come on, Wondergirl," Asuka took Rei's arm, "Let's give him some room."

     He watched them march away, he smirked that Rei took Asuka's hand, and they walked away like that, despite Asuka trying to disentangle her arm from Rei's.  He leaned down and ran his fingers through the ravaged soil.  He wanted to break down and cry, he'd brought the things here, he'd failed to defend this place.  Still, he had to fix it, he stood and took a deep breath.  He closed his eyes, and fixed the image of what it had been in his mind.  All exactly as Asuka had taught him.

     He felt a wave of weakness, which indicated he'd completed the doing.  He opened his eyes, and had a moment to enjoy the restoration, before Asuka's scream of rage told him to run for the trees and hide.

     Asuka, her hair now an orange, purple, and green plaid, ran under his hiding place in the trees, screaming something in German.  Shinji was glad he didn't understand German.

     Rei positioned herself at a tree a short distance from his, and stared up into it.

     "He's there?" Asuka began throwing rocks into the tree, her hair returning to red, as her control overwhelmed his.

     "Come out where I can see you!" she ordered, "So I can KILL you!"

     Rei glanced around, caught his eye for a moment, then went off to collect more rocks for Asuka to throw.  It took Asuka a few moments, and Rei's delivery of more stones, to realize Rei had never answered her questions.

     "Well, is he up there or not?"

     "No," Rei told her.

     "Then why didn't you tell me?"

     "I did not want you to know," Rei told her.

     "Then why am I wasting my time around you?" Asuka stormed off.

     Rei walked to Shinji's tree, pointed right at him, "He is here!"

     "Yeah, right, Wondergirl!" Asuka tramped through the forest.  Rei smiled, as she stared up at him.

     He wasn't sure if Rei was pleased she'd tricked Asuka, or that despite the other girl's presence, they were having private time.

     Or is it she's protecting me again? Shinji wondered, She seems to enjoy that.

     Asuka finally wound down, she had mud and leaves all over her, as if she'd fallen down repeatedly.  She stared up at Shinji and Rei sitting in the tree.  She seemed more angry with herself, that she hadn't believed what Rei'd told her.

     "Throwing rocks at you two isn't worth the effort, you are supposed to be kissing," Asuka said as she walked off, and vanished.

     "I wish to ride the train," Rei told him.

     "Yes," he admitted, "So would I."

     Asuka woke, shook herself, "Outsmarted by Wondergirl."  She punched her pillow several times, "I must be slipping."

     She put her head down, listening as Misato stumbled through the apartment in the darkness.  Asuka wondered how she managed to navigate without killing herself, or destroying the furniture as she snaked through.

     Another mystery I can't solve, she considered as she settled into sleep, before Misato started snoring.

     Outside, the rain was starting.  The precursor of the monsoonal rains that would start in a few weeks, That should drown out Misato's snoring, Asuka hoped.  Asuka considered the other consequences of the pouring rain on everything.  Asuka glanced over, saw the darker shadow in the dark hall, "You want to go play in the rain?" Asuka asked Pen Pen.  The bird eagerly waddled off.

     Asuka tossed the covers aside, and followed.  She stopped at the patio door, "I'm going to have to leave you out there.  Okay?"

     The penguin stared at the door.  Asuka opened it, and closed it carefully behind him.  She watched the penguin frolic in the rain.  She wished she could be as carefree as that bird, no worries, no responsibilities.

     The penguin let the rain pour over him, Asuka thought he was relaxing, as she did in the shower.  She wondered what penguins meditated about, Fish, swimming in the ocean with the other penguins?

     Misato's snoring drove Asuka from her room.  Pen Pen was content to remain outside in the rain.  As she started the kettle to fix some tea, she watched the penguin out on the ledge of the patio, facing into the wind.  He looked like he was aboard an old sailing ship, challenging the wind.

     She could only find green tea, even the PX didn't have chamomile, and a cup of that green stuff would raise the dead.

     So, I will stay awake, she decided.  She wondered what was going through the creature's mind.  "So, are you remembering the feel of speed and water," she smiled sadly, "And freedom?"

     She remembered `falling` into British hands, lovingly placed there by Anna.  She accepted that she might have died, if Anna hadn't done what she did.

     The British, her captors, were always polite, at least the people she dealt with every day were polite and friendly.  She knew Germany could never defeat the coming darkness, her best service to her country and the world, was to make sure her new `masters` would be able to, in Germany's place.

     However, there was occasionally, almost periodically, 'Someone from Headquarters', a nondescript nobody who would point out that some of her friends' families more properly belonged in the Russian sector, invariably they would mention her grandmother.  Asuka knew, as did the British, that her mother and her father, and all their ancestors, had their family home in Wurttemberg.  Her grandmother had no family in the east, too old to support herself, it was the cruelest threat her `masters` ever tried on her, as if she would have done anything except help them fight those things.

     She wondered if Anna had been subjected to the same coercion, or if the Americans saw her zeal and need to fight these monsters from beyond.

     All that succession of bland, proper little men did, was make Asuka question where the real evil resided: in men, or mad gods?

     She watched Pen Pen as she brewed the tea, she wondered if she took him to the sea, would he just swim away, Is that why Misato keeps him locked up here?  So he can't run away?  Is that why they assigned her to `watch over us`, so we can't run away?  She thought of Misato, sawing logs, alone in her room.  Asuka knew she and Shinji looked after their commander far more than the other way around.

     "Even here, I'm still trapped," she poured herself another cup of tea, she hadn't even noticed pouring or drinking the first, "It's as bad here as it ever was around El Nureenen's fortress," she didn't remember every moment of the 40-odd years that fight had taken.  She remembered most of the mistakes made by her side.  The initial competence becoming incompetence as the force structure grew from companies to battalions and then divisions, the different factions of nationality and avocation, the different missions.  All the generals jockeying for position, some because they honestly had, what they thought were better answers, others were just social climbers: politicians rather than military, some were both.  In the end, it was always a stalemate, World War I with a maze of stone corridors replacing the trenches, endless sweeps through terrain that literally could not be held.  Until they'd finally forced a decisive action, pared away the generals and mages and foot soldiers, until El Nureenen couldn't hide behind them anymore, then searched out the hidey-holes and secret gates until these offered no further refuge.  But most importantly, instilled in the army the idea they could win, and would win.

     "That's what we're missing here," Asuka told the empty tea cup, "It's all a holding action again.  No one is sure we can win, and no one wants to even speculate about taking the fight to our enemies, all we pilots are supposed to do is stand here, waiting for them to show up," Asuka wanted to throw the cup across the room in frustration, "And destroy them as they come in."  She sighed, she knew there had to be a better way, she was no expert on these creatures, but she did know many of them had lairs, places they 'Slept in deathless repose'.  It seemed logical, if you knew where that was, you sent part of the force out to kill them there, probably her, Raccoon and Horseface, and kept part of the force, probably Spineless, Ice Princess and Wondergirl, to defend Japan.  "But I'm just a little girl, who'd ever listen to me, even if I am right?"

     She put aside those depressing thoughts with the tea cup, and decided, like it or not, Pen Pen was coming in.  Maybe she'd rig a leash, with a long cable, to let him think at least he was free, if only for a little while.

     She called the bird, and he reluctantly hopped off the balcony railing.  He shook himself as soon as he was out of the rain, giving Asuka enough warning to close the patio door, to avoid getting soaked.  She thought about things as she toweled the bird dry.

     Why am I helping Wondergirl and Spineless? she didn't know, except she realized she would need them, and she'd heard about the Japanese test pilot, even during the war.  She'd heard about how she acted, how cold and isolated she was, and the whispers about how that might happen to anyone who piloted long enough.  Asuka knew it wasn't true, she'd piloted about 2/3d's the number of hours Wondergirl had, and it hadn't affected her.  Throwing the two introverts together, and encouraging them as best she could, had proven it wasn't the EVAs that were the problem.  Quiet, creepy Wondergirl didn't have anything else in her life.

     Asuka snorted at that, Now she certainly did.  "Maybe I should find another violinist, and make a string quartet?  Huh, Pen Pen?"

     The bird looked at her quizzically.

     Great!  I've been reduced to talking to a bird, she thought back to her idea of taking Pen Pen for an ocean swim, as he headed for his refrigerator.  She wondered if they were ever going to let her off her leash, or if they were going to lengthen it, until she could almost forget about it most of the time.

     She looked at the kitchen, at the empty tea cup and the rest of the pot, "No wonder Misato drinks beer all the time, Japanese tea is depressing."

     She headed back to the kitchen to pour the rest of it out, then had a thought.  She opened the refrigerator, removed one of Misato's almost-empty beer cans, she poured it almost full of tea, no milk or sugar, and carefully replaced it.  She returned to her room, past the Katsuragi Sawmill and Rock-Crushing Emporium, and crawled into bed.

     Yes, she smiled, Tomorrow's breakfast ought to be very memorable.  As Asuka drifted off, she considered the chains she'd put on herself, the responsibilities she'd chosen to take on, as opposed to those forced on her by others.  Despite the same, and sometimes greater weight, they were better somehow.

     'Lemons,' Ritsuko heard from Jeff.  She'd been intently listening to the soft cries from Ranma's female form, she'd been trying to soothe whatever night fears plagued the martial artist, she hadn't noticed her other charge had woken up.  The two pilots had been asleep in Ranma's bed, she'd sat with them all night, watching over them.  They'd restrained Jeff's hands, after bandaging them, she'd had Jeff's head in her lap, with Ranma's female form restraining him from kicking, then Ranma had fallen asleep.  She did wonder why Ranma had remained in his female form when it was clear Jeff was not about to wake up.

     "Lemons can get rid of the smell of L.C.L., the juice and the oil from the rind," Jeff told her, "How did I forget to tell all of you that?"

     She reached down and tousled his hair, "Are you saying we stink?"

     Jeff raised his head, looked down at Ranma, "No.  I just realized I wasn't in my own bed, because of the sme . . . scent.  I apologize for being overly familiar."

     "Relax," she guided his head back to her lap, "You're doing both of us a world of good.  I am curious why you were bloodying your knuckles fighting something.  When people dream, their bodies lock up, they don't move around."

     "Bad dreams, that's what it looked like from my end," he glanced up, "Should I mention she's drooling on me?"

     "I thought you'd be flattered," she joked, "You could just kick her off."

     "Two problems, three actually.  First, even asleep, she's a lot stronger than I am, second, the only point I could reach to kick . . . well, it would certainly wake her up, but a gentleman does NOT kick a lady there."

     Ritsuko looked a lot more closely at how Ranma had wrapped herself around.  It had begun as simply holding Jeff's legs stationary, then evolved over several hours to the current arrangement.  "What's the third?"

     "Assuming her link with Ranma transmitted the experience from yesterday, I find it disturbing she would seek solace and comfort from the very person who is the source and cause of her nightmares.  It is a disturbing comment on her psychology."

     "I think it's a special marital arts hold," Ritsuko snickered, inwardly she was worried, A beautiful young girl is practically crawling all over you.  From what I saw in your class, most of the boys and about a quarter of the girls would kill to be in your position, she thought, And you're analyzing it like you're looking at a picture, from the outside.  She saw that their conversation had settled Ranma, rather than disturbing her, Jeff was blushing.

     "You gave me quite a scare, young man," Ritsuko told him, trying to get away from the line of thought.

     "I couldn't let Saotome get hurt, I wasn't willing to let me get hurt.  That left one alternative, like I told the police, and frankly Doctor, I'd do it again, if I had to."

     "I expected you might shoot Ranma, or somebody else.  That frightens me," she admitted.

     "I would not do that to a pilot," he looked around, "Can I get out of here?"

     "Can you?" Ritsuko asked, "Why are you so skittish?" she untied the cloth that had bound his wrists.

     "I have my reasons, reasons I've told you.  Added to those, if Ranma finds out about this, ten minutes later, you'll be able to bury me in an envelope," Jeff told her.

     Ritsuko frowned inwardly, "I think he knows.  I doubt he'd object."

     "Doctor," Jeff said coldly, "I know how Ranma talks about Ranko as an inanimate thing," he paused, patted Ranko's head, "But I think he does indeed care about her, however much and forcefully he denies it.  I don't think he'd want her hurt.  Physically or emotionally."

     Ritsuko didn't have anything to say.

     Nabiki walked in, smoothing her pajamas.  She stared owlishly at all of them, "Perverts," she announced, crawled into bed and spooned up behind Ranma.

     "Ranma is going to kill all four of us," Jeff lamented, relaxed and put his head down.

     Ritsuko didn't have the heart to tell them they'd have to get up for school soon.

     General Tembris walked into the warehouse he and his men had been using as a base.

     "General," the mage hailed him, "The little man took the homunculus.  It wasn't completely ready, but he said it was all right to have it before maturation was complete."

     "When did he take it?" Tembris thundered, letting loose the temper that had cost him allies across the Dreamlands.

     "A few hours ago, I assumed he had your authorization," the mage stammered.

     "He did not.  Can you make another?" Tembris's hands were clenching and unclenching, his eyes searching for a neck to throttle, a neck he knew he wouldn't find here.

     "No, sir," the mage admitted, "There are some ingredients which are only available in the Dreamlands.  Short of going back there, we can't make another."

     "Men!" the General shouted, "Pack up everything and be ready to move in an hour."

     "Sir?" his adjutant asked.

     "Do you think that stupid, little toad will hesitate to accompany whatever strike force SEELE has cobbled together?" Tembris asked, "And I don't intend to depend on Dame Fortune to ensure he isn't captured and interrogated.  He'll crack like an egg, and lead them right here."  Tembris could barely restrain himself from striking out of his men.  A month's careful work, gone, he fumed.

     They'd managed to patch over all of SEELE's clumsy attempts to speed things along, but everything had depended on the homunculus, the delay to prepare it properly was necessary for absolute success.  Now these idiots at SEELE had proven their tactical acumen, again.  In two weeks, they could have delivered Saotome directly into their hands, they might have even convinced him to give his word, and go willingly.  Now that was impossible. If they were lucky, he might survive for them to make another attempt later, but he'd be on his guard.

     Fools! he raged inwardly, Stupid!  God-damned fools!

     Ranma sat inside the tank as they rode to school.  Nab-chan kept pressing him a little more into the corner, and smiling brightly at him.  Ranma was wondering when would she push him right through the side armor of the tank.  He glanced over at Raccoon, hoping he'd do something to distract Nab-chan, but he was staring straight ahead.

     What's got him scared? Ranma wondered, HE shot somebody, and it doesn't bother him, now for nothing, he's terrified.

     Rei and Shinji sat next to each other, every time they bumped into each other, they blushed, smiled and looked away.  Considering how bumpily the tank rode, it happened a couple of times a minute.  Asuka grabbed Raccoon's hat and put it over her face.

     Now he really looks nervous, Ranma glanced down as the pressure from Nab-chan's hip and smile increased.  Ranma wondered if anyone had some cold water, he wasn't sure if he'd use the water on himself, or Nab-chan.

     When the tank stopped in the school yard, Ranma noticed the rain for the first time.  Now he was worried about being a girl at school, or staying trapped in the tank with Nab-chan until the others all filed out, and he could run for the entrance of the school.

     Raccoon stepped out, opening his large umbrella, "Come on hydrophobe, you too."

     The pilots clustered under the protection as they headed inside.

     Jeff watched the ever changing riot of colors march over his fellow students, like technicolor pack ice, as they talked and gossiped and argued.  He wished he could learn to place the color blocks with the person actually speaking, like he count when taking one-one-one, t he couldn't control it, so he lived with it.

     Another day in the Japanese school system, he lamented.  He watched the people around him, for most part they were abstractions, ciphers he didn't know, and didn't care to know.  He had nothing against any of them, but they weren't important, unlike the work, was which was important.  His college psychology classes gave his condition a name, but naming something didn't always give you control over it, unlike what his magic teachers in the Dreamlands had taught him.  So he studied all the relevant philosophical, psychological and religious texts, developed a code of conduct from them, and chose a price for his power.  It gave dealing with people a real and meaningful consequence and reward, and let him ignore that most of those around him were meaningless.

     He didn't need to turn around to know Saotome-san was following him, Codes of Honor!  Ha!!  They're rules ordinary people made up, he wanted to turn and shout at Saotome, but he knew that would be a bad idea, You don't worship them!  If they weren't part of you before you started, imposing them externally wouldn't make any difference.  He knew he could tell Saotome-san that, and it would be like explaining space travel to a barnacle, 'Can I hitch a ride on a space ship?'  Everything would be translated into his frame of reference.  Exactly like the people around here, he wondered why he left so discouraged today.

     They would fumble through life, eke out a living never raising their heads up to be as truly great as many of them could be, and lament the boredom of their lives.  Jeff remembered a quote by Susan Ertz, 'People wish to be immortal who can't think of anything to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon.'  Jeff knew he was different, he devoured life, books, art, music, tiny bits of human creativity, the profound, the whimsical, he lived each day, each moment as if it were his last, so he tempered ephemera with more solid studies.

     Literature class he despised most of all, the teacher would assign a passage, poem or work, then spend the next class period reading it aloud.  No comments, no emphasis on the beauty or message of the work, nothing that wasn't in the book.  Most of the classes were that way here, a reading assignment and a lecture on the assignment without any additional insights, learned or inane.

     "Back to the tanks?" Hiroko asked Nabiki as she changed into her inside shoes, "What happened?"

     "I haven't the faintest idea," Nabiki had an idea, she hoped she was wrong.  It was mind-boggling that Raccoon had told them the truth at dinner last night.

     "You mean I know something the Boss doesn't?!" Hiroko said enthusiastically, "The world must be ending."  She touched her lips to Nabiki's forehead, "You don't have a fever, so the world is definitely ending."

     "I think I know, but I don't believe it.  What do you have?"

     "Somebody tried to kill a pilot, maybe two.  ONI dropped on the Tokyo P.D. like a ton of bricks.  The assassin got killed, gun shot."

     "Near that fancy French restaurant?" Nabiki asked weakly.

     "Yeah, so you did know about it," Hiroko was disappointed.

     "We had dinner there last night," Nabiki said, "They never told us."

     "Oh, sorry," Hiroko apologized.

     "Do you want to come with us to the ballet on Saturday, after class?"

     "Oh, sure.  I love getting shot at.  The roof of that theater at the Naval Base is concrete, isn't it?" Hiroko asked as they walked to class, "Maybe the Yamato really didn't sink.  Those guns should get through."

     Nabiki frowned at her, "Don't be ridiculous, the Americans are refitting her as a spaceship."

     "Nobody would ever believe that."

     Nabiki glanced at her fellow pilots as she entered the classroom.  Asuka was chatting with Hikari and her clique, Asuka was pantomiming horrified surprise, the others were laughing.  Ranma was talking with Toji about something.  Shinji kept glancing back at Rei, who, when she realized he was looking, would look down.  Raccoon was glancing around, nervous as a cat.

     Okay, Nabiki thought, All nuts present and accounted for.  "Hiroko, are there any of the eyes and ears detailed to follow the pilots around?"

     "No, not really, they have minders, like I do," Hiroko admitted, "That's just to keep them out of trouble at school."

     Nabiki considered, "Why didn't they intervene?"

     "Pilots fighting pilots, nobody's that brave, Boss.  I mean, you kill things," Hiroko said, "You're specially-trained how to fight."

     Not as much as I expected, Nabiki thought, 'You kill things,' she considered Rei and Raccoon, Some more than others.

Monday Monday

     Ritsuko walked into her office, she noted how edgy Misato was acting as she waited, it took most of her self-control not to creep up, and scare the daylights out of her.

     "You're looking well, this morning," Ritsuko commented, from a safe distance.

     Misato still nearly jumped out of her skin, "Oh fine, nothing wrong," Misato announced quickly.

     That wasn't what I asked, Ritsuko thought, as she wondered what Misato's kids had done to her, how badly she'd have to torture her friend to get the whole story.

     Fortunately for Misato, Maya's arrival put the operation on hold, "Sempai, Captain.  The American Navy found something we might be interested in, something that would really help our work," Maya set the folder she was carrying down on Ritsuko's desk, she opened it and spread the underwater maps, alongside the salient passage in the report, and put it practically under Misato's nose.

     "OH MY GOD!" Misato shouted.

     Ritsuko was pleased that Misato seemed to have suffered more than her eardrums had.

     Ritsuko entered the Search and Rescue training area, a large classroom with a pool of varying depth, tables inundated with equipment filled most of the available dry space, "Captain," she found the Dive Master, Captain Madison, "I take it you are planning to scare the two pilots out of their idea of joining Search and Rescue."

     "That was the general idea, Doctor."

     "Don't.  Push them as hard as you think necessary, concentrate on deep diving.  I repeat, it is imperative they become competent with deep diving and underwater operations."

     "Understood, Doctor, I would have thought you would want us to discourage them," Captain Madison was confused, "I mean, what we do isn't very safe."

     "I understand that, sometimes what we want, isn't what we have to do.  I also need you to consider how to provide a supply of L.C.L. to a person, from the EVA as a base."

     "Diving with an oxygenated liquid?  That would certainly allow for deep dives.  Why the sudden interest, Doctor?"

     "You don't need to know, and you have about two months to prepare and test the equipment."

     "Yes, Doctor, I assume we can get time in the simulators to test the equipment and the pilots?"

     Ritsuko considered, "Yes, also I'll arrange for you to get all the help from the U.S. Military to build and test your equipment."

     "Yes, Doctor," he said as she left.

     The Search and Rescue crew glanced at each other, they hadn't really intended to scare the pilots into quitting, but just short of it.

     "What was that all about?" the Chief of the Deck asked.

     "I really don't know, Mr. Kassind," Captain Madison replied, "But orders are we see them through."

     "Well, we'd better get our set up changed, we can't overload them," the chief said sardonically.

     "Let's concentrate on the hard hat and helium hat suits.  They're our deepest diving, that should get them ready for the diving tests.  We'll have to rush those.  I don't like it."

     "What about the dive system she's talking about, Captain?"

     "Modified hard hat suit would be the simplest, if we're going deep, it's going to be cold, so we'll need heated uniforms, and the communication will be important."

     The Chief considered, "Will throat mikes work if you're breathing liquid?"

     "We'll find out," the captain said, "We'll have to use the pilots to test that.  L.C.L. has a . . . strange effect on normal people."

     "Are you saying our two new recruits aren't normal?" the chief asked.

     Captain Kuroda, the head of Search and Rescue arrived, "If you ever have to clean up after one of Ikari's 'special experiments', you start wondering how anything even remotely human can survive contact with L.C.L., let alone getting submerged in it to pilot.  I hope I never get stuck in there."

     "Amen," the Chief and Captain Madison added.

     Ranma watched Raccoon collect his umbrella and walk out into the rain outside.  He knew he couldn't follow him, unless he wanted to talk to him as Ranko, which he knew wouldn't work.  He hadn't brought an umbrella or raincoat himself, Depending on Raccoon, or Nab-chan, or Rit-chan to do that kind of planning, he wanted to understand why that made him so uncomfortable, You were supposed to be able to trust other people.  Weren't you?

     "You make a better door than a window, Horseface," Asuka stood behind him in a rain cape.

     "Can I borrow that, when you're done?"

     She rolled her eyes at him, "When I get back, I'll tell you where to get one yourself."

     Ranma wasn't happy about that, but short of tackling her and stealing it, he wasn't going to get the cloak.

     Asuka walked through the rain.  Raccoon was eating under his huge umbrella, alone out on the field.  The English would call this a 'soft day', she thought, Gentle, cleansing rain.

     "What's all this about?" Asuka called to him, "Trying to be all alone?"

     He smiled at her, "I wanted a taste of home, since Europeans hate this, and Ranma won't even touch it, and if Ranma won't eat it, no Japanese will eat it."

     "Gaah!  Peanut butter," Asuka saw the sandwich filling as she stepped under the umbrella, "How do you Americans eat that stuff?"

     "You didn't come all this way just to insult my lunch," Raccoon switched to German.

     "Two things," she opened her lunch, showed him the sausage, sauerkraut and boiled potato, "This was Rei and Shinji's idea, a taste of home."

     "That's a problem?"

     "Look, I . . . I was remembering the war, all the things we did.  Doesn't it ever bother you?"

     "Not really."

     "Look, Dorian Gray, doesn't sitting around waiting to be attacked bother you?"

     "Not if it gives me a chance to establish the proper reception."

     "Raccoon, you can fool the rest of them with that villainous-but-subdued sorcerer act, especially after Horseface's little show, but a mage I trust told me once, that spells from the Dreamlands don't work in the Waking World.  You charlatan," she tapped his head, "The spells that work in the Waking World turn your brain to mush.  You might have a few spells to wow the locals, but that's it."

     "Well, if they're the right five spells . . . so you have insulted me, now you're standing in the rain while we talk about lunches and magic.  What's the second, Langley?"

     "I found out who the Haunter is, that thing that's been following me."

     "I think I know who," Raccoon said, "But tell me anyway."

     "Rei, Wondergirl," Asuka admitted, "I think this was a peace offering," she tapped the lunch box, "Now, how did you know?" Asuka stared at him.

     "One of them was terrorizing our shy watcher."  Raccoon finished his sandwich.

     Asuka didn't feel like eating any more, "From which side?"

     "Does it matter?" Raccoon laughed, "They'll abandon us as soon as they're done.  As I remember, it was your engineering skills that equalized things, not any help from them."

     "It didn't take a genius to figure out, filling a teleport site with rocks limited El Nureenen's actions."

     "I beg to differ," Raccoon told her.

     "The concrete to bind the stone together was some mage's idea," she nodded to him, "Well that's part of it, why has she been chasing me all those years?  What does she want?"

     "Shinji, isn't that obvious?  Otherwise, I don't know, I don't think you're in any danger.  I've got problems of my own."

     "Ranko?" Asuka chortled, "What are you afraid of?"

     "Honestly?  Ranma Saotome.  I haven't figured out which way he's going to jump, and there's nothing I can do about it."

     "Maybe he wants a threesome," Asuka laughed at Raccoon's sour look, "Or a foursome, add Nabiki."  She laughed harder.

     "I could always splash you, see what you turn into," Raccoon grumped.

     Asuka smiled, then frowned, "Look, I'm no Calvinist, like you.  I can't 'It's all in God's Hands', and quit worrying about things, don't you wonder about why we aren't helping Dr. Akagi?  Truthfully, as pilots, she should be working with us on the research.  I'm sick of getting a pat on the head, and watching them `round filing` my ideas."

     "The Americans call it `File 13`, well, if you want to do something, I've got some equations you can help me with.  I'm not the expert, and frankly, I want it done before we give it to the adults, so when they toss it in the ash can, we can still teach it to the others."

     "Sounds good, when do we start?" Asuka said without enthusiasm.

     "A couple days, maybe, imagine what will happen after the war.  The uses we could put the EVAs and AT fields to."

     "And you won't be there, did you know that when El Nureenen cursed you?"

     He shrugged, "Oh course, I was paying attention when you talked about it.  Congratulations, you're immortal, until at most 1952, then . . . you are correct about Dorian Gray, except there's a time bomb wired into the frame.  You do what you can, within the system or in its despite," Raccoon shrugged, "What else can we do?"

     "Do I have to?" she pouted, "I want to rush out and smash their heads together."

     "That sounds like the 14-year-old with a 160% sync rate."

     "168.  There has to be a better way, like the wards the Dragon put on our apartments."

     "All that's on top, what's underneath?  You evaded my question."

     Asuka turned and stared out into the rain, remembering, "While I was leaning against the railing of an American cruiser, pulling out of Bremen.  I remembered that when I escaped from Berlin with Anna, the question was how we were going to win, the Germans, not the Nazis, they'd already lost.  When I woke up three weeks later, in a British hospital bed, at that point, I wished I had died instead, instead of my country.  As the cruiser pulled away, I thanked God no one was waiting there, to say goodbye, to cheer, to console, . . . or to pity."  She glared at the rain-soaked field, "We are never going home, are we?  You and me, not even if we win."

     "I don't think so, and that is an awfully big if," Raccoon told her.

     "I look at these people, and wonder why I even bother, not fighting the war, but following this pack of morons.  What are we?  Sheep?"


     Asuka turned back, frowning, "I'm serious."

     "So am I, you bypass the idiots and kill the traitors.  I think the U.S. Military wants to win.  I haven't the faintest idea what Gendo and company want."

     Both laughed at that.

     Ranma watched Asuka walk out to Raccoon.  He debated simply walking out there, but he knew that his curse was supposed to be secret, and the last thing he wanted, was the other students to know about it.  He heard Nab-chan's approach.

     "Why don't you go out there?"

     "Into the rain?" Ranma asked, "What is he afraid of anyway?"

     "I think he's afraid of you," Nab-chan told him, "After he woke up and found Ranko glomped on," she ignored his increasing blush, "He figured you'd beat us all up, with him as the main focus."

     Ranma flinched at that.

     "Frankly, I think he's right.  Considering how much you love Ranko, the idea of you cheating on you like that.  Well, I can imagine," Nab-chan told him, "Or can you imagine what would happen if he called a halt to it, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'."

     Ranma hung his head in disgust, "He can't really believe that," Ranma groaned, "He just can't."

     " 'Fraid he does, 'Ranma and Ranko are NOT the same person'," Nab-chan patted his shoulder, "Just let him down easy, maybe have Ranko promise to protect him if Ranma comes after him."  Nab-chan walked away.

     Ranma felt worse, he wondered if she enjoyed pointing out all the complications in his life, even complications he hadn't seen yet.  Ranma could hear Asuka and Raccoon talking, arguing really, but not the way they normally argued.  It was as if someone had split Asuka's usual emotion intensity between the two of them, neither of them looked happy.  But they weren't acting normal, he couldn't read their chi across the distance, but he thought they were more depressed than angry.  That doesn't make any sense, he thought, What could they be depressed about?

     He wanted to talk to Raccoon, as Ranma.  The dream from a few days ago was still bothering him, but last night `she'd` thought of the shooting, then dreamt it over and over again, different each time.  Raccoon fired in about a third of the dreams, the rest all the action was Ranma's, as Raccoon just stood there, waiting to `be protected` by Ranma.  In some variations, Ranma did the shooting, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.  In some of those cases, the cultist killed Raccoon before Ranma fired, sometimes after, the cultist then killed Ranma in most of the dreams, laughing at him as it left him with the corpse in the others.  Some, no matter who shot, the cultist killed Raccoon, then only part of the time it killed Ranma.  Always Ranma, never Ranko.  It was better than the dream about the panda and getting skinned, but it still couldn't be anything except a nightmare.  None of the tricks to get out of nightmares did anything, except change the sequence, the main reason he `escaped`, was that he'd remember, and ended that particular dream, another would begin anew.

     Then for some reason, he found himself in a huge library full of all kinds of old and interesting smells, leather, tobacco, ink, paper.  Two figures, Ritsuko and Raccoon, by their scent, were sitting in a library next to each other, in two high-backed leather chairs, arguing about something in a language he couldn't understand.  He still didn't know why he leapt into their laps, curled up like a cat and purred himself to sleep, while one of them scratched him behind the ears and the other at the base of his `tail`.

     That dream frightened Ranma almost as much as the others, except cat-Ranma was delighted by the warm laps, the attention, and felt completely safe and contented.

     He sighed, lunch would be over soon, he doubted Asuka and Raccoon would be done before it was over.  Any conversation at home would be monitored by Nab-chan, and he'd never hear the end of it, and while Ranko luring Raccoon to a secluded place would work, he'd be furious at both Ranko and Ranma.

     "Good grief, now I'm thinking of myself as two people!" he said, then thought, It would be easier if there were two of us, Ranko could `keep the peace` while Raccoon and Ranma talked.  He knew that was impossible, there was only one Ranma Saotome, who was sometimes a girl.  He sighed as the bell proclaiming the end of lunch rang.

     Dr. Akagi and Commander Fuyutsuki were finishing up a conference on the sea investigation, when Jeff entered his office.

     "Excuse me, Captain Katsuragi asked me to drop this with the two of you for scheduling and approval, before I started with Search and Rescue training."  He handed each of them a carbon copy of the sheet, "It's a request for one day's leave, in about two months.  I'm delivering it now, so you can deal any scheduling problems well in advance."

     Commander Fuyutsuki scanned the paper, "It seems in order, two months seems a little more than necessary for one day's leave.  We do need some way of contacting you, if there is a problem."

     "I'll probably have a major military security force shadowing me.  If an Angel attacks, I'll hear about it and head back, probably by helicopter.  Anything else, well I doubt I'll be much use to anybody that day."

     Dr. Akagi considered, "What's so special about that day?"  Jeff gave them a mischievous smile, Dr. Akagi knew they were in trouble.

     "You two love mysteries so much," Jeff told them, "I could hardly deprive you of this one.  I'll give you a clue, check in my personnel file, under siblings."

     Intrigued, Commander Fuyutsuki pulled out the file, leafed to the section. He didn't see it.

     "Adjust for the time zone," Jeff suggested.

     Commander Fuyutsuki read the paragraph, "Leave is approved."

     Jeff nodded and left, the Commander set the file before Dr. Akagi, and indicated the relevant paragraph.

     She looked at the entry, "Samuel," she said quietly. It's not right for him to be alone that day.  She remembered the comment Nabiki had made as they went through his photo album, wondered if that had something to do with his reaction to Ranko.  She considered the possibilities.

     Nabiki was having difficulties reassembling the regulator, she glared at Jeff as he arrived.  Their first lesson was the assembly and disassembly of the critical parts of the heavy helmet of a hard hat suit.  A similar unit called the 'Helium Hat' was for deep diving.  She wondered why they didn't use scuba systems.

     "What about air tanks?" Nabiki asked.

     The Marine Captain, Kuroda, was watching her progress, "There's a French guy, Coastal, Cowste . . . "

     "Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau, also Dr. Christian Lambertsen - " Raccoon started.

     "Yeah," a chief interrupted, "But his thing killed people.  I think we'll wait to let that French guy to work the kinks out."

     Nabiki smiled at Raccoon's shrug.

     "Until the problems are ironed out, you're stuck with hoses, tethers, etc.," Captain Madison, the Dive Captain, told them, "Besides, you can't talk using that system."

     "What about talking?" Nabiki wondered if she'd heard correctly.

     The chief pointed out the parts, "The helmets have a mike and headphones, so you can talk to the surface.  If you get in trouble, there's someone who can help you.  Or send help."

     Nabiki wasn't as mechanically adept as her fellow pilot, so she fell behind him, slightly.  Her pride would not let her get too far behind, even if she had to ask for more help.

     Memorizing the dive tables was a lot easier, it didn't have to make sense, she just had to remember them.  There she had the advantage.

     Just before evening, the two had done so well, the Dive Captain decided to give them a `treat`.

Into the Depths

     "This is heavy!" Nabiki was amazed by the weight of the copper helmet, she hardly needed the weighted shoes and belt.  They were fully suited up: helmet, suit, weight belts and shoes.

     "Then how come you're moving so much faster than me?" Raccoon was falling behind her.

     They were only 'diving' to ten feet, so their heads were only about 4 feet underwater.

     "Okay," Nabiki was not enjoying the possibility of drowning in water she wouldn't be the least bit worried about, if she wasn't wearing all this weight.  The presence of two other divers for each of them, did not fill her with confidence.  She could still drown if she tripped and fell, If they're trying to scare us, she thought, They're doing a good job.

     They walked around for a few minutes, then went through a simulated decompression.  Nabiki didn't like the close confines of the hardhat suit, the rough canvas chafing her, and most of all, the dependence on others for her very life.  The pump and all the other equipment had to be monitored by someone else, she didn't like depending on others.  Especially when it was this important.

     Nabiki let the warm water in the pilots' shower run over her, she couldn't imagine how she could be so cold and all sweaty at the same time.  "Why did I volunteer for this?" she asked quietly, "Why haven't I quit?"  She hated getting all sweaty, she hated having to depend on others, she hated jobs that were muscles not brains.  This looked like it was all those things.  She let out a long breath, and shut down the shower.

     "Because I'm too stubborn to quit," she admitted.  She would get some food, a little practice, then she'd sleep.  Maybe get one of the Ranma's wonderful massages.  Maybe I shouldn't have teased the boy so much, she thought, But he's so cute when he's flustered.

     The bastard is happy and chipper, she watched Raccoon cook dinner, while she sat at the dinner table and struggled through her homework, his was already done, of course.  Ranma was across the table, grinding through math, having read the Literature assignment already.  Nabiki could still feel the lead shoes on her feet.

     She was starting to have real reservations about even being here, the deal she'd made with Belldandy.  She'd been forced to see the difference between her `pampered` life and how her classmates had to live.  Hiroko lived in an apartment so small that it wouldn't have been out of place in modern Tokyo, especially for 11 people, Hiroko's whole family.  She had answered all kinds of questions posed by Hiroko's parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters.  They had been very nervous about meeting a pilot.  Nabiki hated the deference born of real fear, EVA pilots were practically another species, so far beyond normal humanity, as the kamis were beyond humans.  Hiroko's earnings had increased the family's income.  Nabiki had downplayed the danger, implying that Hiroko's job was administrative, true enough, the need for security and reliability explained the cost.

     The family had been close-knit, which also made Nabiki a little bit jealous.  Hiroko and her mother were polite to each other, Nabiki knew they argued, but would never do so in front of an honored guest.  When they tried to discover what exactly Nabiki and Hiroko did, Nabiki talked it around, implying security concerns, not lying, not telling the whole truth.  Talking about charity, helping with tutoring, etc.  She barely escaped without revealing her shady operations.  She had never been the least bit ashamed of fleecing the morons of Nerima.  She knew it was pay her, or do without the new CD or movie this weekend.  Because her family needed the money for food, and clothes, and repairs to the house.

     Here, she was the rich one, if anything, she should be spreading her money around, she could afford it.  She had thought Raccoon was just being sanctimonious when he wanted his money to go to charity.  Now she was thinking that he had a clearer view of what was happening around Tokyo, around them, than she did.  That irritated her.  Japan, Tokyo specifically, was her home, she should have learned about this in history class, but they glossed over it.  Furinken was hopefully not typical, but considering the arrogance of her father and Genma towards basic necessities, she doubted they'd ever seen this kind of extensive poverty.

     Ranko woke on the rocky plain, in much the same position and condition she'd found herself in when she'd managed to escape this dream a few nights before, she wished Raccoon would loosen up some, she wanted to talk, and he was sleeping on the couch in the living room, again.  Sometimes it is prudery.  It's not as if I'm going to jump him or something, Ranko was sleeping in Raccoon's bunk, Maya was in Ranma's.  The two adults had come home and Maya stayed over, after hours of talking about some new project or other, something about actually catching and studying one of the Angels.  It all hinged on Nab-chan and Raccoon mastering the diving skills they were learning.  Ranko smiled, from Nab-chan's expression, she'd been hoping Rit-chan would forbid what they were doing, and give her an excuse to quit.  Now the two women were encouraging it.  Ranma hadn't know what Cthylla was, but he thought capturing an Angel was the worst idea he'd ever heard of, and said so.

     She thought of the bizarre situation in the Waking World, and the bizarre situation here in her dreams, because there was no Ranma here, only Ranko.  That it didn't worry her, should have frightened her, but it was just one more bit of weirdness, she stood stiffly, took a few wobbly steps, then collapsed.

     She realized the beating had a greater effect than she'd considered.  She didn't like it, but she crawled to a pool of water she'd spotted when she was fighting, she cleaned herself up, then considered what to do next.  She was worried that Raccoon hadn't come looking for her.  She'd admitted she left the dream dojo, and couldn't make her way back.  She could tell he disapproved, but he didn't yell at her.

     "Yeah, I might have cried," she complained bitterly.  Her practices lately had been terrible, that worried her even more.  If this dream disrupted her emotions and her sense of spiritual balance, it was more than something to be troubled about, it was something to be terrified about.

     Even more than that thing stuck up there, "How do girls do this . . . bleed every month?  No wonder Asuka and Nab-chan are mad all the time."

     She washed the blood and dirt in the clean, and most ominous, warm water, it was hot enough she should have transformed.

     "Except that panda ate Ranma, he's not here, just me," she sighed, spotted something in the water.  She leaned over and looked in, it looked like Rei, if Rei were three meters tall in plate armor, and a lot more curvy and buxom than usual. "There's a lot of space between that breastplate and Rei."

     "It is chain mail."

     Ranko whirled around, realized her initial guess was right, Rei was bending over, staring at Ranko.  The armor was of an unknown style, the straight spear she carried could have come from any tradition, a heavy-leaf shaped blade on a stick a little taller than Rei herself.

     Ranko instantly wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.

     "The panda went that way," Rei, now normal shape, in her school uniform, but still 3 meters tall, pointed to a cleft in the rocks, "The escape is that way.  Roku-kun cannot help you here."

     Ranko sat up, "So you're telling me to give up?"

     "I expect you to," Rei replied, as she returned to her normal height, bare centimeters taller than Ranko, "You will not like what you find here."  She turned away.

     Ranko rushed up to cut her off, but Rei vanished before she could reach her.  "Then where am I?" she asked desperately.  She looked at the path the panda had taken, steeled herself to follow, then realized Rei was manipulating her to do exactly that.  "Jeez, even Rei's pushing me around now."

     She despondently marched in the other direction, she looked down on the other thing that bugged her about this place, Rei and Ranma got to wear clothes, and I'm stark naked . . . why?

     Jeff closed the door of the dream dojo behind him, adjusted his tattered hat and coat.  Looked around the dojo, "Well, she isn't here, she wasn't out there," he sighed, it had been quite a risk, but if Ranko was not out there, where was she?  He did wonder how much of Ranko's phobias running away screaming, was Ranko's sense of humor, and how much he should really be concerned about.

     A moment later the door opened, closed, and something slammed into him from behind, almost knocking him over.

     "Thank you, thank you, thank you!  I'm so happy to see you here!" Ranko told him, wrapping her arms around his waist, "Can I have your coat?"

     "I'm please to hear it.  Why pray tell, do you need my coat?" he knew he couldn't get his arms loose from her grip without a bulldozer.  Her fear almost overwhelmed her relief.

     "I'm naked."

     "You know enough to make your own clothes," Jeff reminded her, concerned about her obvious fear, and that he hadn't seen her, and she arrived moments after he did.

     "Oh, it works," she released him and giggled.

     "Where were you?" he asked, he tried to work the creases out of his ribs.

     She got very serious, "YouhavetohelpmesaveRanma, apandatorehimoffofmeandatehim, andbeatmeup, soI'llneedyourhelptogoafterhim."

     "Can you repeat that as one sentence, instead of one word?" he asked, he could see how agitated she was.

     "I cannot help you," Raccoon told her.

     Ranko was outraged, "Why not?"

     "Because you are traveling in your own mind and spirit, not a dreamscape.  Depending on the strength of your personality, either I won't be able to go in at all, or I can enter, and I'd wreak untold havoc.  So it is not advisable."


     "Well, you don't have to go back.  Although I find it interesting that you projected as your subconscious, your animal drives, as Genma-Panda; and your superego, your conscience and self-control, as Rei.  Good casting."

     "So why did my Rei, superego, that sounds really conceited.  Why did it tell me to go running back here?" Ranko asked.

     "Why are you so eager to go running off into your deeper selves?  By the way, getting Ranma `torn` from you isn't too different from what happened to me, I got torn to pieces by something, and my pieces were eaten by all these little fish.  Can you imagine trying to reassemble yourself as hundreds of thousands of bits of fish droppings, from all over the ocean?!"

     Ranko giggled at that.

     "You told me you wanted to know who and what you were, Rei was basically telling you, you aren't ready to do that.  Are you that dissatisfied with who you are?"

     That stopped Ranko, she kept being brought up short, she wasn't really as capable as she expected.  People yelled at Ranma for doing things that, looking back, they were right, but there were much better ways of achieving the same thing.  Yet at the time, Ranma did the only thing that occurred to him, and sometimes it got him into trouble, she needed to know why.  "What you told me, doesn't explain enough."

     "Well, with Gendo taking your father's place, a lot of the disasters he'd inflicted on you on a daily basis didn't occur, but getting the Amazons mad at you, selling you for a fish and some pickles, even Gendo wouldn't do that.  He might sell us down the river to save the world, but that's a very different motivation.  So you have to decide if you want to find out why you are the way you are, or if you want to overcome it.  You might want to do both.  But just not just yet."

     "Why not?" Ranko complained.

     "Your destiny is to become a Great Old One, the Angel of Late Martial Artists."

     Ranko was shocked, he seemed so serious and sure.  Then she carefully examined his body language, it was a bit too neutral, "YOU!" she tackled him.  She had him flat on his back in an instant, his arms inextricably pinned, she lay atop him and considered she could do whatever she wanted . . . she threw herself off.  Dammit!  I'm a guy!  It shouldn't even be thinking that way!

     "Are you all right?  You looked like you hurt yourself."

     "No." she hugged her legs to her chest, Was this because of what happened to `Ranma`?  "As you say, 'It's not proper.'"  She was glad he just nodded.

     "Well, let's do some practice," Raccoon told her as he stood, "From your expression, you're planning on ignoring my advice and going back."

     Ranko nodded, "I think I have to."

     "Okay, we'll concentrate on what will help you.  The first thing you'll need is a basis in psychology and general mythology.  That should help you interpret the symbols."

     They packed up their books and papers after Literature class.  Shinji glanced around.  Ranma had left to talk with the Judo and Karate clubs.  Asuka had disappeared with Hikari.  Nabiki, Hiroko and a few of the others were talking, tallying and totaling.  Only Rei-san and Raccoon were ready to leave.

     He wasn't sure if he was comfortable with this `special project` that Rei-san and Raccoon had involved him in, he had a strong suspicion it was more than 'moving boxes', and 'fitting people to products', as Rei-san had described it.

     Nevertheless, he followed them down, a second tank was waiting for them.  Rei-san took his hand, her look assured him that everything would be all right.  He would have agreed, if it was just the two of them, add any of the other pilots, and their rather odd way of having fun, and nothing was safe and predictable.

     "Relax," Raccoon told him.

     Coming from him, Shinji thought, That's the last thing I feel like doing.  The tank moved off, Shinji concentrated on just hanging on.

     Asuka wanted to know why Hikari had been so determined to keep their destination secret.  Asuka didn't think fooling her was in Hikari's nature, her imagination just didn't run that way.  They sat in the cooking classroom, between the desks and the stoves that ran the length of the classroom.  One of the few classes Asuka actually enjoyed, Japanese food preparation was . . . different.  She wondered what they'd think of Shinji or Raccoon taking this class, instead of whatever the boys did during that period.  Especially when Raccoon and Shinji got straight A's, she smirked at that.

     "Asuka," Hikari looked worried, "Has NERV been doing something strange, taking the students and testing them?"

     Asuka thought, "Nothing they've told us about.  Why do you ask?"

     "A lot of people have been staying home sick.  Not many in our class, but I've talked with the other class presidents.  The descriptions are all the same, weak, irritated, insomnia, it's usually over in a day or two, but it's been getting worse."

     "No, as far as I know, they aren't doing any special testing.  They don't tell me everything.  How many people are we talking about?"

     "Fifty as of yesterday, and it's been getting worse.  It was twenty, just today."

     "Maybe it's hayfever," Asuka said, as she considered the problem, "The rainy season is about to start, maybe it's that."

     "I've never noticed it this bad before," Hikari told her.

     "I think you need to lay this out for the eyes and ears."

     "You mean Hiroko and Nabiki," Hikari said sourly, "Raccoon already left."

     Asuka decided to have some fun, "You know, I would have thought you'd have the courage to ask me to take you to the PX, I never thought I'd have to suggest it to you."


     Asuka wondered if it really was the Arabian Nights, or if ignorance and gossip made it more than it was, "Well, if you don't want to tell them, tell Raccoon, or Natsumi, or Wondergirl."

     "I would rather tell Nabiki.  Ayanami-san unsettles me, do you know how that is?"

     You have no idea, Asuka felt her stomach churning, but kept smiling.

     Shinji carried another box of blankets to the truck, he couldn't imagine how Rei-san could carry a stack of boxes as tall as she was.  He was struggling with one or two.  The medical building's laundry was a strange place to be picking up 30 boxes of blankets, it felt like stealing.

     "Are you sure this is all right?" he asked Raccoon.

     The other boy pulled one of the blankets out, it was clearly marked 'U.S. NAVY', it barely reached from his shoulders to his ankles.  "They're all shrunk, or somehow unusable in the hospital, but that doesn't make them any less blankets."

     Shinji nodded, some of them were too small even for him, Rei-san or Ranko.  But who'd need 30 large boxes of blankets?

     "Trust us," Rei-san said, told him, rather than asked him.

     He climbed into the tank with them.  The tank took off again, Shinji saw that the truck was following them.

     "The American Military only throws away the very best," Raccoon told him.

     He wasn't sure what that meant, the tank's crew thought it was funny.  Shinji's worries faded considerably when Rei-san took his hand and looked at him.  She'd told him to trust her, he did.  He could tell she was smiling because he did trust her, even if she didn't show it.

     They arrived, wherever they had been going.  Shinji followed Raccoon and Rei-san out of the top of the tank.  Surrounding the tank, was a collection of children of various ages, and a group of adults, all in orange robes, with prayer beads around their necks.  The children were shouting and yelling, they parted to let Rei-san and Raccoon jump to the ground, but they closed immediately, trapping him on the deck of the tank.

     "That's Ikari Shinji, the first person ever to take an EVA into battle," Raccoon announced.

     The kids cheered, reached up to touch him.  He wanted to run away, even battle wasn't as frightening as looking down into those worshipful faces.  Children, a few older than he was, most younger, so full of joy and hope at seeing . . . him.  He glanced over at Rei-san, who had total confidence in him, then to Raccoon, who was leading some of the orange-garbed adults to the truck with the boxes of blankets in it.

     Two of the tank crewmen carefully took his arms and lowered him into the shouting mass.

     So many people, Shinji was glad Rei-san made her way through the crowd to his side, and led him into the compound.

     Ranma looked at the entire Judo and Karate clubs.  Most of the members were lying on their backs, he had been careful not to hurt any of them, but they still didn't give him a workout.

     Nab-chan, Rei, Asuka or Raccoon might have a time with all of them, but not much.  He cracked his neck and watched them stand up.

     "Are any of you black belts?" Ranma asked.

     One or two besides Kenta and Seisuke raised their hands.

     "Okay, let's work on some basic exercises," Ranma reminded himself that they wouldn't learn as fast as he did, some of his most effective moves would have to be taught step-by-step.  At least this will be good practice for when Ranko starts teaching. he thought.

     Shinji sat at a table, trying to fit the kids to the blankets.  The aura of adulation, the absolute awe these kids held him in, hadn't diminished with time, and it still frightened him.  They'd talk about how brave he was, he'd reply how scared he was, and still he worried about combat.  Instead of reducing their zeal, it only increased it.  He couldn't understand it, I'm a coward, I only did what I had to, what they forced me to.

     Rei-san had taken one of the larger blankets, gone over to a young child sitting off by him/herself, Shinji wasn't sure if the child was a boy or a girl.  The child seemed not even to notice her presence, picking up rocks and spinning them.  Rei-san pulled several palm-sized metal discs from her skirt pocket, and spun them, she matched the child's back and forth rocking motions.  Shinji wasn't sure what she was doing, but no one bothered them.

     He refocused on the little girl in front of him.  She looked so scared, like she was ready to cry, "Would you like Army or Navy?" meaning brown or tan.

     "Navy," she said, barely audible.

     Shinji went to the boxes, found one much too large, returned and draped it over her head so only her face showed, "Is that too big?"

     She shook her head, " 'ank you," she wrapped it around herself and ran off to show it to one of the priests, as if she had gotten some holy relic.  That was the other thing that bothered him, most of the men here were Jesuits, Japanese Catholics, the women were Buddhist nuns.  Very different despite the orange robes and prayer beads.  He glanced at Raccoon, There's a story here, somewhere.  Raccoon didn't seem to be having the same problem, he was a curiosity, not an object of veneration.

     Shinji found himself in the uncomfortable position of not scaring other people.  He was acting as he wished other people would act towards him, and he was still frightening these kids, even a few of the ones who were two and three years older than he was.  He didn't like being frightening, but he was having enough trouble just avoiding being terrifying.  He kept smiling, kept his tone friendly and tried not to move too quickly, but it didn't seem to work, even the adults were intimidated by him.

     "I told you, you were a hero," Raccoon whispered to him as he collected some of the empty boxes.

     He hadn't considered that, he was just Shinji, he wasn't clever like Raccoon or Nabiki, he wasn't a fighter like Ranma, he wasn't an expert pilot like Rei-san and Asuka, he was just him, nothing.  Now he surrounded by people who were absolutely convinced he was definitely above normal humanity: braver, smarter, something.  Somehow, he couldn't look into their faces and shatter all their illusions.  So he returned to passing out blankets, answering their questions as completely as he could.

     "I completely fouled up," Shinji wanted to curl up and die.

     "You did fine, very Jimmy Stewart," Raccoon told him, "You saved the world!  Shucks ma'am, jist doin' a job that needed doin'."

     "What does that mean?" Shinji asked as he looked around the tank they rode in.

     Rei-san was studying the smooth stone the child had given her.

     "Those kids have a lot of things to be scared of, the idea that an EVA pilot is scared too, somehow it takes away the shame of being scared.  I didn't take Saotome or Langley for that reason.  Too overwhelming.  The two quiet ones were the best choice," Raccoon smiled, "You did just fine.  They'll be talking about meeting you for months, the blankets were the real extra."

     "That is who you were helping with the picture money," Rei-san said.

     "Exactly, a little food, hardware for repairs, now they have all those extra blankets to distribute to people who come to their doors.  The blankets took weeks to arrange.  I appreciate your help."

     "Will we do it again?" Rei-san asked.

     Shinji thought she sounded eager.  The experience terrified him, but if Rei-san went with him, he would do it again.

     "You two are free to do it any time you wish.  As long as you clear it with Security, I'm going again next week," Raccoon told them.

     Shinji glanced over at Rei, she nodded, they'd go back with Raccoon.  Neither was ready to go on their own, or together without Raccoon.

     Rei watched Shinji-kun as he and Roku-kun tried to keep their seats.  She had enjoyed trying to reach out to the little girl who had withdrawn from the world, Rei had the determination, the stubbornness to break through, to enter the girl's world and operate in it.

     The gift of the stone indicated she had partially succeeded, and the girl wanted her to continue.  Those who didn't pay attention, assumed neither did she, nor did she want to be part of the world.  Her incomprehension wasn't the same as disinterest.  She closed her hand on the rock, not understanding was not the same as not paying attention, and it certainly was not the same as not wanting to belong.

     Ranko walked through the mountain pass to finally chase down the panda.  "Eaten by fish," she shuddered as that thought, she couldn't figure out why she was naked again, she wasn't self-conscious, she was thoroughly tired of getting scratched by the stones and plants.  She also had a bad feeling that her own baser instincts would love to get their hands on her.

     She was honest enough to know she had those impulses.

     You had one about Raccoon, Ranko reminded herself, And Nab-chan.  All Nab-chan had asked for was a shoulder massage, Ranma had trouble not thinking about other places he could put his hands.

     All the explanation she'd gotten was in regards to the `link` she and Ranma had, and that she was afraid of losing him.  Raccoon guessed that Ranma was having similar dreams/mental walks due to the link they shared.  What Ranko had learned about Ranma and Ranko's past, threatened that link.  Ranma/Ranko had verified the curse still worked, so it was all mental, her 'lapse' as Ranko, then almost as Ranma, was entirely her or him, that scared her a lot!

     Raccoon was a good guy, and he was a lot of fun to be around, but he was a guy.

     Just like I am, she reassured herself, Nab-chan is definitely a girl, but I could never figure her out.  Does she want to be my girlfriend, or does she wnat me to stay away? she wondered if Nab-chan even knew.  She wondered at the barrenness of the place.  It was starkly beautiful, a desert or wilderness, she had to wonder if that was due to the scarcity of her memories, or if this is the kind of territory she preferred, or something else.

     It felt funny not being able to ask Nab-chan, Rit-chan or Raccoon about this, somehow having a source of reliable information didn't feel right.  Half the time when Ranma, or Ranko asked a question, those three would provide a decent answer, or admit their ignorance, and direct him/her to another source of information.

     Being alone, having to depend only on Ranma, or Ranko as she did right now, not being able to trust anyone or anything felt more `natural`, and very uncomfortable.  She paused, as the wind carried voices to her, voices arguing about something.  She headed in that direction, climbed over an escarpment, and gazed into a large depression, like a meteor crater.  At the center, she saw the panda and the woman Raccoon had described as his mother, she did look a lot like Shinji or a dark-haired Rei.

     I wonder how that happened, Ranko saw the pair were cooking something, in a huge black cauldron almost as tall as they were, the wind brought a whiff of what they were cooking.

     "GAHH!  That smells like burning piss!" Just brilliant!  Tell them you're coming.  Ranko watched the panda jump close.  She leapt away as the panda approached.  She remembered 'stocking up' on the information.  She couldn't beat one of the 'icons', they represented some concentrated aspect of her/himself.  The panda might be anything, but it was only one element of Ranma, 'A support beam makes a lousy roof'.  That was why Ranko didn't dare try to meet any of these things force to force. Her 'amalgamated nature' made victory impossible, likewise, if she could force something out of its strength, she could beat it easily.

     This one is sneaky, so I don't let it be sneaky, she kept up a seemingly random pattern of direction changes, but generally away from the pit, then she changed it into a circle, to loop back and get a look at whatever they were doing.

     Unfortunately, the woman and the pot were gone when she arrived at the pit, when she looked back, the panda was no longer pursuing.  Ranko sat down near where the pot was, searched for any clue about what they had been doing.  Other than a wood fire and the lingering burnt piss smell, she had no idea, but she had other sources of information, when she woke up.

     Rei woke suddenly, filled with dread.  She glanced around her apartment, the feeling was different from the attacks by the Cthonians, deeper and more visceral.  She immediately thought of the others, that struck a chord.  It was the others who were in danger this time, the rains had protected her from the monsters of the deep, the rains and one other thing.

     The day she'd been allowed to return to her apartment, after the mortar attack, she had noticed the faint scratches in the metal panel, and that the screws were not oriented as they had been.  So she had removed the panel, and found the gift behind it.  She was no spell-caster, she didn't have to be.  She had seen what was there, and what it did.  Then she had realized when Roku-kun had come in response to the power's intrusion, it was also a warning system.  That had been easy enough to tap into as well, she touched the plate concentrated on the patterns beneath.

     In her mind she saw them, two sets of concentric circles, separated in space and time.  From outermost in, the circles went from the gossamer flexibility of a spider web to the armor of a battleship, the outermost ring had been disturbed, and several of the other, inner rings.  Warnings had been sent out, had wakened her.

     "Shinji-kun," she whispered, he was in danger.  She grabbed a folded shirt out of her closet, and ran out the door, pulling it on as she covered the miles at her best speed.

     Shinji watched the Reis, 27 of them, all riding the train.  The littlest one had insisted on riding in the engineer's cab of the locomotive, and was using up about half the steam the poor boiler could generate, just blowing the whistle.  He didn't recognize the tune she was trying to play.  The others sat on the roof or in the cars, just watching, not talking, not moving.

     Shinji had realized if going to the orphanage was going to be a regular thing, he was going to have to get used to crowds of kids.  Then he remembered how the others had reduced Saotome's fear of cats, frequent exposure in small doses.  He had one `crowd` he didn't mind being around at all.  He'd expected to find Rei-san in her dreamscape, the Rei who also walked the Waking World, but she wasn't there, so he'd offered to take the crowd that had formed, to ride the train.  None of them seemed enthusiastic, even the littlest one.  Then she'd said something that chilled Shinji, 'If we leave here, we'll die.'  She said it as if it were obvious, and it didn't bother her.  Shinji had never heard of such a thing, he'd assumed these were parts of Rei-san's personality, as his many fears manifested in the `rabbit-spiders`.  So he'd brought his dreamscape here, he wasn't sure how he linked the two realms, but he knew they could safely pass between them now, as long as he was here.

     Shinji sat alone on the leading edge of the roof of the car following the tender, he could glance back and see several of the Rei's, watching him, watching the scenery, he knew they were enjoying themselves, perhaps only he would be able to tell.  The little one, with the engineer's cap askew on her head, was tracing the steam lines, trying to figure out what everything did, Rei-san's voracious curiosity made manifest.  He kept wondering where the `real` Rei-san was, the one he talked with and walked with in the Waking World.

     Pen Pen saw the thing, it looked like an asymmetric spider made of smoky, gray crystal, almost invisible in the darkness, five legs on one side of its twisted body, three on the other.  It could not break in directly, but he knew what it would do, break into hundreds of tiny fragments, thousands of tiny copies of itself.  Almost invisible in shadows, all filled with venom, all waiting for the kids and Misato to go out beyond the ward's protection.  They would sting and bite and tangle, one alone was meaningless, the dozens or hundreds that would attack each victim would be fatal, before help of any kind could arrive.  The house was quiet, he could do his work, and not be discovered, although as the spell took effect, it would wake everyone around, although that might not be a bad thing, and people would blame the noise on the monster.

     Pen Pen closed his eyes and concentrated, crystal had one fatal flaw, even one as misshapen as this one, that crept along on eight legs.  Pen Pen and the neighborhood dogs heard the high-pitched sound first, he'd started beyond human hearing to disguise what he was doing as long as he could.  The spell balked and faded.  Someone had shielded the creature, there was a faint chance it could pass the wards, and a very good one that nothing Pen Pen could do would stop it.

     Rei had never seen Roku-kun not wearing a suit, either his business suit or a plugsuit, but he stood barefoot in his pajamas on the roof of Captain Katsuragi's apartment.  He still wore his hat, and still carried his walking stick.  He took aim and threw the stick at the thing that was hanging on the side of the building, scratching at the window of Shinji-kun's room.  The stick bounced off without any effect, Roku-kun stepped back from the edge, uttering a quiet 'Damn!', as the creature leapt onto the roof.

     Rei had an answer for spiders, a gift from a successful battle.  She'd practiced, as Roku-kun and the Second Children had instructed her.

     "No," Roku-kun reproved, "That's what it wants."

     She lowered the Schofield she normally kept wrapped in this shirt, when she wasn't practicing with it, and considered, if Roku-kun wasn't using his gun. . . .

     "We let it kill itself," Roku-kun pointed to the stinger on the creature's tail as he approached from one side.

     Rei knew she was no good at these kind of games, instead she formed her AT field and squashed the spider-crystal against the roof, immobilizing it completely.

     "You wouldn't step on Douglas Fairbank's daring-do like that, would you?" Roku-kun asked as he broke the creature's tail off, and impaled the crystal spider with it.  The gray faded to black, and the creature crumbled away to dust.

     "Subtlety, my dear, subtlety, if I'd wanted to wake the neighborhood, I'd have called in a fire mission to the Alaska and the Hawaii."

     "That would have worked?" Rei asked, if they could get the battleships to fire on these monsters, it would simplify things immensely, at least for the little ones.

     "No, I was joking, the guns aren't that accurate, and even if it worked, the shell would have blown up the entire apartment."

     Rei considered, "That would not be desirable."

     "Well, you could ask the Admiral about getting some slugs for the heavy guns."

     Rei thought it was an excellent idea, she nodded and started off.

     "After school!" Roku-kun stage-whispered at her, "Not now.  Somebody's going to die for this."  He walked away grumbling, Rei wasn't sure what he was saying, she could only make out 'Admiral' and 'Mr. Davis', he didn't sound happy.

     Rei swung over the side, and climbed down to see if Shinji was disturbed by the activity, he was still sound asleep.  Rei watched him for a few moments and dropped the rest of the way to the ground.  She considered how early would it be appropriate to approach the Admiral about this problem, after school was too long a wait.  She settled on 6:00 a.m.

     "Burnt piss?" Rit-chan asked.

     "Yeah," Ranma said around his breakfast, "They were boiling something in a pot and the breeze off the pot smelled like burnt piss."

     "I'll leave off the question if this is really appropriate mealtime conversation," Raccoon said irritatedly, "And how you know what burning piss smells like.  But ammonia vapors sounds like a fuller or a tannery."

     "Don't look at me," Ritsuko said.

     "I know those are `unclean` jobs," Raccoon said, "I can't imagine ostracizing people for doing these jobs."

     Nab-chan squirmed at that.

     "What's a fuller?" Ranma asked.

     "A fuller cleans and prepares cloth, often making felt from pelts and hides."

     "Oh."  Ranma concentrated on his breakfast.


May 21, 1947

     The sun had dried the fields at school, Ranma still felt he was chasing the wind, Raccoon had avoided him at school, every chance he got.  Ordinarily, Ranma would have thought chasing him down was a good test of his abilities of stealth and speed, except he had a lot of questions and only a little time to ask them.  Last night's dream had just added to things.

     He still didn't want Nab-chan or Rit-chan around when he asked them.  "Raccoon, Davis, can we talk?" he'd finally cornered him near the perimeter wall.  The look of suspicion the other boy gave him, hurt Ranma worse than if Raccoon had just punched him instead.

     "Yes, Saotome-san?"

     "Look," he stepped back as Raccoon tensed up, "I need to talk to you, about some dreams."

     "All right," Raccoon didn't relax much.

     Ranma didn't know where to start.  Raccoon just stared, keeping that neutral expression, and an air of imminent flight.  It could scarcely have made Ranma more nervous.  "I'm not going to hit you!"

     "I have your word, as a martial artist, on that?" Raccoon asked.

     Ranma was about to agree, when he remembered the contempt Raccoon had heaped on the whole code of honor idea, "My word, but not as a martial artist, as me."

     Ranma was extremely uncomfortable, besides the disturbing dreams, he didn't want to `give permission` for Raccoon to `date` Ranko, but he didn't want the other boy always looking over his shoulder if Ranko got the least bit friendly when they were just having fun.  But he couldn't just say that, I cannot believe it, I'm jealous of myself.  Ranma didn't like the idea that anyone was frightened of him, respecting his skills, that was okay.  But that someone like Raccoon, someone who could kill, was afraid of him, it was mystifying.

     They stood there like that, for nearly two minutes, Ranma failing to find the words he needed, he saw that Raccoon was outwardly calm, inwardly ready to vault the wall to escape.

     Ranma wanted to ask about the dream, any ideas, guesses, anything that might help him decide his next move.  The words never came.  "I'm okay with you and Ranko," he mumbled.

     "That is her choice, and mine, not your's," Raccoon replied coldly.

     Strangely, the defiance made Ranma feel better, and made him curious, "If I told her to stop seeing you.  How would you stop me?  I said if!"

     "There are ways," Raccoon intoned, "Terrible dark ways, to freeze the soul and boil the marrow, yielding only pitiful, unheard lamentations and gnashing of teeth."

     Ranma took a step back away from the growing cold and darkness, and wondered who turned off the sun.

     Raccoon raised his walking stick, Ranma froze, wondering if he'd put his foot in it again, like he often did with Nab-chan.

     "CAT BOLT!" Raccoon hissed menacingly.

     Ranma covered his face, expecting a storm of thousands of the terrifying creatures to erupt from the end of the stick instantly . . . any second now . . . this second . . . now . . . right now . . . maybe now.  He peeked at the smirking Raccoon, and considered pounding him anyway.

     Then the scream.

     "That wasn't me," Ranma exclaimed, "It's this way," Ranma pointed, "And it's close."

     Raccoon caught his arm before he could charge over the wall, "Let Security handle it, that's their job, not ours."

     "I can't do that," Ranma shook himself loose, and jumped over the wall, he took off running.

     He heard the sounds of Raccoon crashing the the ground, he glanced back as the other boy was pulling himself out of the undignified heap he'd landed in.  Both heard the cries for help, they both accelerated.

     "You don't listen, do you?" Raccoon angrily asked as he caught up.

     Ranma could careless what he thought, it was a Martial Artist's duty to protect the weak.

     A little girl, maybe five or six years old, was being loaded into a Navy truck by six men, while she was struggling and screaming her head off.  Easily a dozen men were waiting in the truck.

     Raccoon swung wide, accelerating away from Ranma.  Ranma still didn't know how Raccoon managed that, Raccoon's extra foot of height shouldn't have given him that much of a speed advantage.

     At least he knows how to run, Ranma thought as he closed in.  He saw Raccoon hit the driver with his walking stick, then the co-driver flew out the other side of the cab, The truck's going nowhere, Ranma thought as he hit the first man, while kicking the rifle out of the hands of a second.  He grabbed one of the men out of the truck bed and threw him at the four on the ground.

     Rei Fu, Ranma thought, Hit your enemies with your enemies.  He jumped into the truck bed and tore into the packed men, As long as you have two or more foes, it's an armed style.  He used the elbow and short leg strikes, just to practice the techniques, there wasn't even 2 dozen men, hardly even a workout.  But this new technique is better for close-in fighting, his instinct was to let the distance open up, but he knew that some of these people would escape, if he did that.

     It was over too quickly for Ranma's tastes, he wished at least one of them could have given him a workout.  Ranma saw one of the bystanders turn and run away, he jumped out of the truck and started to chase him down.

     "Saotome!" Raccoon raced towards him, Ranma dodged Raccoon's clumsy tackle as the gunshot went off.  The little girl has a gun? Ranma dodged out of the expected path of the bullet as Raccoon crashed down to the pavement, once on the ground he aimed his pistol at the girl.  "No!" Ranma shouted, "She's only . . . "

     Raccoon's shot took her in the head, splattering the rear of the truck and the men inside with blue-green ichor, and throwing her under the truck.  Ranma watched in shock as the little girl with the top of her head blown off, got back up.  She raised her gun as Raccoon aimed his, he shot first, blowing open her chest and smashing what was left against the front wheels of the truck.  She, it, didn't rise again.

     Ranma stared at the small corpse in disgust and horror, he missed the first gunman who got up and ran away, he didn't miss the second, or the third, slinging all of them into the truck on their colleagues.  The rest stayed cowed by his fighting and Raccoon's gun.

     Ranma kept looking at the little corpse.  He wanted to ask what was going on, he wanted to know who, or what, that thing was.  But Raccoon had remained lying on the ground, and looked a little worse for wear, so he was likely disinclined to talk to Ranma.

     Terrific, Ranma thought, Jabber, jabber, jabber, until I want to talk, then he clams up.  He glared at their prisoners as NERV Security and the Marine guards showed up.  Except I couldn't say what I wanted, when I had the chance.  A little privacy and a glass of cold water and he'd talk to me, and I could talk to him, Ranma complained inwardly, another uncomfortable `difference` between Ranma and Ranko.

     Hiroko entered the chemistry lab, saw Natsumi going through the closet area used by the Chemistry Club, "Wasn't that almost empty?"  Hiroko watched the other girl rearranging the crowded contents.

     "Yes, it used to be just what we could scrounge up.  But we got a special order to get this stuff, and we get to keep it, after we test its purity," Natsumi told her.

     Hiroko could guess who gave the orders, and paid the money, "Methyl vinyl ketone ACS reagent, isopropyl alcohol pharmaceutical, mesylate . . . forget it."

     "Methylene Chloride Mesylate, there's a lot of weird stuff," Natsumi glanced around, "Raccoon told us that Dr. Akagi was having trouble getting this stuff."

     "And you didn't have any trouble?" Hiroko was already considering the implications.

     "We had to go pick them up ourselves, but in less than a week, we had them, we couldn't find these three," Natsumi handed her a list, "We don't know what those are.  The rest was easy, once we had the money."

     "This second one is incense, I think the first and the third are animal parts, take it to the biology teacher, he may know exactly what it is.  I think someone is playing a bad joke on Dr. Akagi."  Hiroko handed back the list, she was already thinking.

     "That's what the other eyes and ears thought so too, I agree with them," Natsumi told her.

     Or someone is sabotaging her work, Hiroko thought, Or is intentionally restricting her supply, now they can't any longer.  Hiroko smiled and wondered if she should bring her suspicions to Raccoon, the Boss, or both.  She smirked, If I learn too much, they'll rub me out, she laughed at that.

     Dr. Akagi carefully examined the bruising on Jeff's chest and arm.  "Funny how the bruises are on your side and the inside of your arm," she said, "Almost like the bullet hit your side, bounced off and hit your arm."

     "Or I could have landed badly, trapping something in my coat between my arm and chest," he replied, "I take it Saotome-san's okay."

     "A little shocked about what happened, but he's already bouncing back."

     "You do not sound too happy about that."

     "The two of you walked into a group of gunmen," Ritsuko said, "And Ranma is already talking about how easy it was."

     "It was easy, they didn't react properly.  And you're worried about what happens if someone is expecting him and his skills."

     "I'm worried about both of you," she walked over, hefted his coat, "You take precautions.  But that's not a preventative, nor is it a cure."

     "Well, I'd warned Saotome not to go, when he didn't listen, I realized the rest of Security would never keep up with him.  I couldn't leave that idiot unguarded out in harsh light of the real world."

     "Well, there are no internal injuries, nor are there magic ways I can speed the healing of these bruises, you'll have to live with them.  Take it as a lesson about your own mortality," Ritsuko told him.

     "Fair exchange," he started putting his undershirt and shirt back on, with her help.

     "So, Raccoon," Ranma caught up with his colleague, "What was that thing?  I've never seen blue-green blood."

     "It was a trap," Raccoon told him as they stepped out of the medcenter, "I would like to know how they knew exactly where to stage that.  Somebody had to tell them where we were talking."

     "Who?" Ranma asked, he didn't like what Raccoon was saying, he was also concerned by the way he was moving, too stiff, favoring one side, until he noted ranma's attention, then he alternated, favoring one side, then the other.  Ranma wished he could uses some of his ki techniques, determine the extent of the injuries, but Raccoon had enough man in his to block him.

     "If I knew, I'd be doing something about it.  Somebody's going all out, I think someone should make sure they get an appropriate remuneration for all their exertions."

     No, I think someone should make them pay, Ranma thought.

     Gendo looked across his desk, and steepled fingers at Kaji, "As head of Security, I would think you'd have more and better answers than that."

     "Commander," Kaji replied breezily, "I can't give you information I don't have.  Do you have any information on the bait?"

     "None of that concerns Security, the device can't be manufactured locally," Gendo replied, "Military Intelligence is handling that part of the investigation, as well as running down the identity of the captured attackers, with the assistance of the Tokyo Police."

     "Do you think these latest incidents are linked?" Kaji asked.

     "I don't see how," Gendo admitted.

     "I bet the Committee isn't pleased by all this activity, "Kaji commented.

     "I don't doubt it."  Gendo considered why they were doing this.

     The little man looked through the warehouse, except for what was officially here, it was empty.  He wondered where the others had gone, when his compatriots would betray him to the police.  He had barely escaped, the others had been captured, and that stupid thing automatically went to kill mode.

     He was still limping from where Saotome had kicked him.  He finally understood why they were offering so much money for him alive.  But he didn't understand why the rush.  He doubted they'd tell him.  Now even Tembris had abandoned him.

     He considered just turning himself in, maybe they wouldn't execute him, Maybe the Army wouldn't, but SEELE certainly would.

     "Ranma!  Can't you keep out of trouble?" Nab-chan attacked as soon as he walked in the door.  "And what about you?" she attacked Raccoon as he followed him into the apartment.

     At least let us get our shoes off Nab-chan! Ranma thought.

     "No," Raccoon glanced at the schedule.

     It's not his turn to cook, it's mine, Ranma thought as Raccoon headed to the bedroom.  I've been watching him favor his right side, and try to hide it, the side he didn't land on, when he tried to push me out of the way, he thought.

     "So what do you feel like for dinner?" he asked.

     "Your heads, on a platter!" Nab-chan told him, "Both of them!  If I don't get some answers."

     "I already answered you," Raccoon called from the bedroom

     Ranma heard him head into the bathroom.  He stepped past a fuming Nab-chan, "Take a long soak in the furo, you'll feel better.  Nab-chan will be too busy with me to peep."

     "Thank you, no," Raccoon replied.

     Ranma heard the shower go on, off, And it'll go on again in about five minutes and he'll be out, Ranma shook his head, "Talk about stubborn," he walked away.

     "Yes," Nab-chan, arms crossed, stared at him, "Let's talk about stubborn."

     "Look, you weren't there!" Ranma told her, he stepped past again, and headed for the kitchen.

     The shower stopped, He's gone to bed, fewer people to cook for, Ranma thought, I still want to know what that thing was, and why Raccoon knew to shoot it, Ranma stopped to consider, Or does he shoot everything that's a real threat to him and the pilots? Ranma shuddered, Nab-chan's as bent out of shape as I've seen her.  Sheeesh, even Kaji and Rit-chan didn't give me this much of a hard time about what happened.  What's your problem? Ranma didn't tell her, he knew enough to stay out of her way when she got in these moods.  I have to wonder what these guys were after.  There weren't enough of them to take me or Raccoon, certainly not together.  Ranma smiled at that thought, deepening Nab-chan's frown.

     Well, sorry Nab-Chan, Ranma thought, The first real thing you asked me to do for you was fight, then you get all incensed when I do it for myself, or somebody else.  I can't do that, he wanted to tell her, But she'll never understand, it's like I am, the one thing about me I'm sure of.

     The small corpse lay on the examination table, the blue-green blood had confused the medical examiner, but he continued the routine autopsy.  He knew the cause of death had been blood loss.  Unusual, considering the massive trauma to the head.  He completed his work, and rolled the corpse back into the refrigerated cabinet.  Writing the report was going to be very interesting.

     No one noticed the man enter the examination room after it was empty, and open the cabinet.  Some of the blue-white solid chunks, that the medical examiner thought was the creature's dried blood, were collected, and the man left.

     Ranma stared up at the futon in the framework above his head.  "You got shot," he said without preamble.

     "How do you figure that?" the other boy replied tiredly.

     "You landed on your left side.  You're hurt on your right.  You got shot . . . because of me."

     "I don't know how you figured that.  I carry a medical kit in my right pocket.  I just landed badly.  A bullet wound wouldn't leave a precisely rectangular bruise.  Besides, if I'd been shot, you'd be staring at my corpse on a slab in the morgue, not talking to the back of my head."

     Ranma made a note to check on Raccoon's medical kit, he knew that if the bullet landed on the kit, the kit would cause the bruise.  "I just want to say, I'm grateful," he was uncomfortable with this, Raccoon was no Martial Artist, he could have been killed.

     "For what?" Raccoon replied, "Look Saotome, we can talk about this all night, but I'd rather get back to sleep.  So, assuming you are correct, you are about to propose some stupid code of honor nonsense that will have me tripping over you as you follow me around like a lovesick puppy.  With that in mind, since you would continue going into situations that I can handle, and you can't, acknowledging your point of view, would result in a severe degradation of my effectiveness.  As I divided my attention between my enemies, protecting myself, and protecting you."

     "You realize I don't have any idea what you just said," Ranma told him.

     "It - makes - more - sense - for - me - to - have - let - you - get - shot," Raccoon told him, "That would have been my best course of action.  Your scenario makes no objective sense."

     Why do I get the idea I'm right, and you'll never admit it, Ranma thought, I just can't figure out why you won't admit it.  Against humans, I can protect myself better than you can.  Ranma couldn't figure out how someone could save his life, at great risk to his own, and not want to acknowledge the honor debt that created.  He almost thought Raccoon was angry at having done what he did, He isn't angry he saved me, Ranma guessed, He's mad that I `caught` him doing it.

     Ranma shook his head, if he lived a million years, he'd never figure out his roommate.

     Shinji had entered Rei's dreamscape again.  He was glad to see all the Rei's, including the Waking World version, were here.  There were only 28, total, that's all there was.  He watched the Reis mingle, You can't call it socializing, he realized that while all of them would interact with him, they treated each other like mobile obstacles, they never talked to each other, they never played together.

     He could direct them to play a game, and they would continue without prompting, but they wouldn't start one spontaneously, when he asked why, they just stared at him in incomprehension.

     "Where were you last night?" Shinji asked the Rei of the Waking World, "I came by and you weren't here."

     "I was occupied elsewhere," she told him, looking slightly ashamed at that.

     "You can do what you want, you just looked forward to riding the train with me, I thought you'd all like to go.  You're the only one who missed it."

     Rei turned around so fast Shinji stepped back, he hadn't seen that expression on her face since the black tar monsters, Children of Nyogtha, he reminded himself, tried to break into her apartment.  He thought for an instant she was really going to hit him this time.

     "You took them outside?" she asked, stepping closer to him.

     "Yes, I brought my dreamscape close, and well, I guess I linked them up, so they could go to either one," Shinji wondered how much trouble he was in, how badly he'd alienated his friend and confidant.

     Rei didn't' answer, she just turned and ran away at her best speed, I couldn't catch her with a jeep! Shinji thought as he pursued, the other Reis falling in behind, keeping pace with him, rather than her.

     "Do you know where she went?" Shinji gasped from exertion as he ran, the others had no trouble keeping up the pace.

     "Don't you?" the littlest one teased.

     Shinji understood he did know, he wasn't sure how, and he didn't know where what he searched for would be found, in Rei's dreamscape.  However, he knew exactly where she'd be.

     It took several minutes of searching, but he found it.  The room full of tables, the tellers' windows, it was a bank.  Behind the tellers' counter, he saw it, the vault, the door was closed.  A tug showed it was locked as well, and he was no safecracker, her will here was adamant, he couldn't simply wish it open.  Shinji stared at the vault door, vaguely remembering what Asuka had said, 'Nothing was ever finished.'

     He walked past the other Reis, who had followed him, and outside the bank.  Sure enough, the rear of the bank wasn't there.  Huddled in one corner of the vault was Rei, swatting down, hugging herself and rocking back and forth.  It reminded him of the child Rei had played with at the orphanage.

     "Rei-san?" Shinji entered with trepidation, he knew how dangerous approaching an angry Asuka was, or a drunken Misato, he'd rather fight angels, he was allowed to fight back.

     She hadn't reacted as he approached, and the other Reis were staying outside.  He touched her shoulder.

     "Rei-san, I'm sorry if I did wrong, if I hurt you, please tell me," he said miserably.

     "Hurt - me," she stopped rocking, but didn't lift her head, "Hurt - me?"

     Suddenly she sprang at him, Shinji couldn't dodge, and wouldn't hit back.  He was pushed back, bumping into the walls of the vault as Rei's arms encircled his shoulders and his hips, she'd practicably picked him up and shoved him there.  She buried her face in his shoulder, while the tightness of the grip made his shoulders and hips creak, he could still breathe.  Nothing happened for a few moments.  She made a quiet cough that shook her entire body, then another, she seemed to be burrowing her head into his shoulder.

     "Rei-san . . . Rei-chan, please tell me, what did I do, how can I help you, how can I make this right?" he felt wretched, he couldn't figure out what was happening, if he'd hurt her, why wasn't she hurting him back?

     She raised her face to look at him, etched on her face was an expression of heartbreaking pain, Shinji hadn't realized he could have hurt anyone this badly on purpose.  He would have done anything to take back what he'd done.  Then she smiled at him, just long enough for him to see, then returned her head to his shoulder.

     He felt her tears, and realized she was sobbing.  He put his arms around her, and started the slow rocking motion he'd watched her doing when he'd arrived.  She tightened her grip slightly, nuzzled his shoulder, but said nothing, continuing to gasp occasionally as she held him.

     Shinji wished there was someone who could tell him what was going on, what he'd done.  He understood she wasn't angry or sorrowful, she was happy, so happy it hurt her dreadfully.  He couldn't think of anything to say, or anything else to do.  So he held her, rocking slowly, saying nothing.

     No wonder Saotome hates school, Asuka thought.  She'd watched Spineless and Wondergirl enter, hand in hand with Wondergirl's head resting on Shinji's shoulder.  Wondergirl's expression was bland, as always, but now it was the blandness of utter contentment.  Well, somebody nipped off to Nirvana, and left no forwarding address, she thought, Why didn't you stay there!?

     Asuka could hardly stand it.  Spineless and Wondergirl had been carrying on like that all day.  If she didn't know better, she'd have thought he'd slipped off to her apartment, and they'd discovered sex together, Spineless looked intensely guilty, Even for him, he looks guilty, and Wondergirl looked like she was still in the afterglow.  But that's impossible!  Asuka was sure of it, Neither would have the guts to even try it.  They'd both need an instruction manual and permission from Steeple-fingered Stoneface.  Even she couldn't calculate the odds of that happening.

     She knew it was possible to do that in dreams, she'd had lovers herself, another reason she laughed at Misato, and Horseface.  Men were men, what they did outside of bed or the battlefield made them keepers or not, she thought, wondering again what had happened, she knew it didn't carry over to the Waking World.  So what's got them like this? Asuka wanted to take both of them somewhere private, and beat the truth out of them.  From the look on Ice Princess's face, she thought, I might have some help.  Except she isn't disgusted by it, she's more curious and amused.  Then she watched a little more closely, And she's wondering how to torture Horseface with it.  Ice Princes, you'll never get him like that!  Raccoon's got Ranko more wrapped up than you do Ranma, without even trying.  Try using his methods! she wanted to yell at the stupidity that always surrounded her.

     She also wanted the class over, NOW!.  Because they were going to work on the equations today, she wasn't sure what the equations were for, but any real math challenge, I'm up for it!

     Instead, she waited, and she listened, to the teacher drone, on and on, about the local volcano.

     There's not one mountain in Japan that's a patch on the Alps, she tried to stay awake.

     "Davis-san!" the teacher's anger and sarcasm was evident, he disliked the two gaijin in his class, especially when they were proficient in the subject, "I'm certain the class would be fascinated to know what you are so diligently working on, instead of listening to the poems about Fuji-san."

     Asuka nodded her head enthusiastically, and brought a snicker from the class.  A Raccoon versus teacher exchange, she thought This should make my week.  Go get him!  There's only 20 minutes left, you can keep him occupied for 20 minutes, please!!

     Raccoon stood the moment the teacher addressed him, a level of courtesy the other students often failed to meet, "Of course, sensei.  I was comparing and contrasting Sun Tzu's the Art of War, Musashi's The Book of Five Rings and Guderian's Achtung! Panzer, with regards to NERV's current troubles and life's problems in general."

     Asuka managed to avoid laughing by main force, the giggles from the others almost cost her her composure, Stupid teacher assumed the gaijin was goofing off, she thought, We're college students, of course we know the subject.  Better than you!  Asuka saw Hiroko and Ice Princess were stifling laughter, the Three Stooges were making faces at Raccoon or at each other, she couldn't tell which.

     "What about the haiku on Fuji-san?" the teacher demanded.

     Raccoon answered, "Sensei, I grew up in Wyoming, between two arms of the Rocky Mountains, on a clear day, you could see both.  So well . . . " he continued in English,

          "It's very pretty:

          It doesn't come up to home:

          In my eyes, sorry."

     There were whoops and cries of 'poetic stud!' from some of the better English speakers.  Asuka heard Ice Princess add a 'Nice Kuno-chan', and felt a chill.

     The teacher thanked him and asked him to sit down.  He walked away shaking his head, it took him nearly five minutes to regain his composure and another ten to get control of the class.

     'I'm sorry, I just can't get that worked up about a volcano,' Asuka heard Raccoon tell Wondergirl as they packed up to go home, 'I keep wondering when it's going to go BOOM!'  Wondergirl placidly nodded, stealing looks at Spineless.

     "It's very pretty, but it doesn't compare to home," Asuka teased as they walked to their ride home, "Raccoon, I thought you would give the prof a stroke, right then and there."

     "He forgot that others have mountains too," Raccoon replied, "And some are more impressive, besides, the point of a mountain is to look down from its top, not to look up from its bottom."

     "A difference in culture," Wondergirl commented.

     Asuka was surprised that Wondergirl was actually contributing to the conversation.

     "To see far, or to know your place," Wondergirl finished.

     "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle for politics, the farther you can see, the less you know where you're supposed to be.  Very well," Raccoon asked, "Where do you stand on the mountain?"

     Wondergirl stopped, the others did also.  She had no immediate answer, she considered.

     Come on, Wondergirl, let's get home, you can wax philosophical on the ride home! Asuka didn't shout, although she wanted to.

     "On the rocky part," Wondergirl said and started walking again.

     Asuka turned to Raccoon, "You did this to her," she said threateningly.  She grabbed Shinji's arm and dragged him towards the tank.

     "You act like I got her pregnant," Raccoon grumbled, then shouted, "One of these days, you're going to tear his arm off doing that, like a cloth doll."

     Asuka stopped, shoulders hunched as if struck, she released Shinji's arm and marched into the personnel carrier.

     "Ah," Ice Princess noted, "An opening."

     "Let's get the prybars and explosives," Raccoon replied.

     "I've got nothin' ta do with this," Horseface held up his hands and backed away.

     "Chicken," Raccoon and Ice Princess commented to each other as they followed her into the tank.

     No doubt devising schemes to taunt me, Asuka thought, Give me those equations, and I don't CARE what else happens!

May 22, 1947


     "It's called a transformation matrix." Asuka told Raccoon, "It allow you to convert one set of equations, or in this case one set of coordinates, to a different basis."  The others ignored them, first they were speaking German, second neither Ice Princess nor Spineless could follow even half of what they were saying.

     "So this should allow me to convert to a mutually orthogonal basis, then into the standard basis?"

     "Why not just convert directly?" Asuka looked at his equations and wrote down several more equations.  "Why the sudden interest in Linear Algebra?"

     "Simple, why can't we overlap and reinforce our AT fields, why are they always flat, planar surfaces, usually vertical?  I managed to derive these equations," Raccoon handed Asuka a sheaf of papers, "But I couldn't solve the simultaneous equations.  You're the maths genius."

     "You finally recognized that."

     "I knew it before, it's everything else I dispute."

     She frowned at that, "Well I'm going to check these equations, and you start on converting them to the standard basis."

     "Quick question, how do I derive the basis they are in?" Raccoon asked innocently.

     Asuka growled, snatched the papers from his hand and stalked into her room.  Slamming the door behind her, "Don't bother me!"

     Nabiki watched Raccoon hold up his hands in mock surrender.

     "I like living too much," he said.

     "What is that all about?" Nabiki asked, "My German may not be perfect, but you two lost me in a few sentences.  All I could make out were bits and pieces."  She glanced over at Rei and Shinji, who were sitting next to each other.  Nabiki had the strangest impression that Rei wanted to put her head on Shinji's shoulder or in his lap, they'd both been acting very strange all day, but she'd get to the bottom of it, Before Asuka does.

     "Yeah, you were talking about the AT field?" Ranma asked, "Weren't you?"

     "Yes, if the mathematics becomes solvable, we can link our AT fields, change their shape, even extend them through another AT field without the massive effort we have to use now.  Maybe even duplicate that trick you used the first time."

     "Still after the magic bullet to shoot Angels?" Nabiki teased.

     "Why not, I'm sick of having to go hand-to-hand against enemies with ranged attacks.  We always end up damaged, and we always end up in the hospital."

     "You do certainly!" Ranma teased.

     "Quit being so catty," Raccoon retorted, causing Ranma to shudder, "Anyway, if we could form a tube to guide a shell into and through an Angel's AT field, we could balance that out.  Imagine a regular 16-inch shell hitting one of those things, where it matters.  The Russians are supposed to have shells that can penetrate, I'd love to see them in action, and figure out how they do it.  Then see if we can duplicate that, or come up with a way of doing something similar.  Combining what they do with our AT fields could make mincemeat out of the next Angel.  Or Saotome's trick of projected explosive points, anything to increase the combat range."

     "Why are you so determined?" Ranma asked, "I like punching them out."

     "Because if I don't figure out a way to shoot them," Raccoon replied, "John Wayne and Randolph Scott are going to repossess my spurs and horse."

     Nabiki shook her head, she returned to the homework, the teacher had gotten back at everyone, they had to write a paper about an unusual experience in their lives, the pilots could not detail anything having to do with NERV.  I could talk about all the nuts back in Nerima, Nabiki thought, But One) no one would ever believe me, Two) I'd rather not advertise it, and Three) I'd rather not think of those people if I don't have to, and I don't have to.

     Asuka returned a few minutes later, "Try that as a basis, run it through the equations a few times."

     "I'm not going to ask how you did this," Raccoon set the paper before him, and started to work.  Asuka returned to her room with a grim expression.

     "This has something to do with magic too, doesn't it." Nabiki asked quietly, in German.

     "That's how I got the observations in the first place, testing my field against the other effects.  They all followed a consistent basis, deriving and refining the basis took years," Raccoon replied in Japanese as he wrote out the complex equations and substituted in the variables.

     "You haven't had years," Nabiki retorted, "Months or weeks at most."

     "How little you know," Raccoon returned, "Anyway, if math can describe the field, we should be able to manipulate it as we want."

     "You could let Ritsuko-sensei help," Ranma suggested.

     "And have to explain how I got the data, set up the equations and proofed them.  No thanks, I got embarrassed enough describing one aspect of that already.  When I present this, it will be a fait accompli, 'Here Doc, the solution to the problem, just turn the crank.'  I'm tired of having to justify everything that I do, I'm just the second alternate pilot remember, not a certified genius borne of another genius."

     "You're as competitive as Asuka," Nabiki watched the mathematics flow onto the page, it was eerie watching it, "And you're both worse than Ranma."

     Raccoon stopped, looked up, "If you're going to insult me, I can work outside."

     Nabiki backed away, "Okay, I was joking."

     "Not. Funny."  He looked back at the work.

     Nabiki grumbled as she returned to her school work, she wondered what his reaction would be if she told him about his parent's work on the Manhattan Project.  She couldn't think of another reason a physicist/chemist team would have been at the University of Chicago in 1942-43.

     A few minutes later Asuka came out.  "I can't find any errors in your work."

     Raccoon stared at her open mouthed.

     "What?" Asuka asked angrily.

     "Those equations are thirteen years' work, you check solved them in a few minutes?"

     "Oh course," Asuka was miffed, "You doubt me?"

     "No, no.  It's just that as good as I am at something, somebody around here is orders of magnitude beyond my skill level.  It's sooo good for my feeling of self-worth."

     "Thirteen years?" Ranma asked, "You mean you developed this while you were in Nerima, as me?"

     "Exactly, Soun Tendo was very helpful."

     Nabiki watched the papers cascade out of Asuka's fingers, then Shinji had to catch her as she tottered, he lowered her to a sitting position.  Nabiki was trying not to faint as her pulse raced and her breathing stopped.

     "Soun Tendo?" Asuka stared at Raccoon, "Looks like Commander Fuyutsuki, cries a lot?"

     "Long brown hair and droopy moustache," Raccoon's eyes were fixed on Nabiki, "Cries a lot, very helpful in developing this."

     Nabiki couldn't believe what she was hearing, but it continued.

     "Three daughters - "

     "Five: Kasumi, NABIKI, Akane, Natsumi, and Kurumi: brunette motherly, brunette loan shark, three black-haired combat monsters," Asuka said automatically, as Rei helped Shinji keep her upright.

     "One affianced to a sixteen-year-old Ranma Saotome," Raccoon added.

     "Yeah, Kaji, I was her," Asuka pointed at Nabiki.

     "I feel sorry for Kaji, I got stuck as Mr. Subtlety too, with Gendo as Genma."

     "Stoneface as that fat slob!" Asuka was laughing hysterically, "Talk about miscasting!"  She continued laughing until Ranma stood.

     "You knew about it too!" Ranma yelled furiously at Asuka and Raccoon, "You know what my father looks like, what my history is!  Who my family is!  And you didn't tell me!?"

     "Calm down, Saotome," Raccoon said sternly, "It wasn't exactly all fun and games for me.  I assume the separation wasn't easy for the rest of you, I notice you haven't exactly broadcast your experiences in that dream."

     Ranma gulped, "It's not like I like talkin' about massacres . . . all that blood."

     "So let's discuss this rationally," Raccoon said, "It's clear that Langley and I didn't go through the same experiences, I told Ranko that it was a Great Old One's distortion, this just proves it."

     "What's this `history` stuff," Asuka rallied, "You were sixteen . . . in 1992 . . . that sounds like the future to me."

     Nabiki watched the two nod, she was dreading what was going to happen next.

     "What about you?" Ranma asked her, "Don't you have anything to add?"

     "I don't have two sisters, or four," she said, Because I disowned them, "I'm not sure how much of the rest of the story is accurate.  My father was named Soun, and he did own a martial arts dojo."

     "'Was', 'did', are you saying he's dead?" Shinji asked.

     "I don't know," Nabiki said quietly, "The last time I saw him, was months before I came to NERV, he may be dead now, I don't know.  Maybe this Soun is, will be, his grandson."

     "What did you dream?" Rei asked.

     "'Analytic and Algebraic Topology of Infinitely Differentiable Non-Euclidean . . . '," Nabiki recited mechanically in German, "Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring."

     "Berlin, 1944 . . . that was around the time that Gunther died," Asuka said, "Anna was heartbroken for months.  What about you, Wondergirl?"

     "The tower of Celephais, after the incursion into the Forbidden Lands," Rei said quietly, "You have many loyal friends."

     "Gott im Himmel!" Asuka said.

     "Wait a second!" Ranma shouted, accusing Rei, "You were there in Boston!"

     "I was never in Boston," Rei replied quietly, "Before 1947, when you were there too."

     "No!  In 1945, April, I - ," Ranma paused, "I kinda blew you up, sorry, but you were trying to shoot me."

     "I was not in Boston in 1945," Rei replied primly.  Everyone knew if Rei said something, it was the truth, "Besides, if you killed me then, how am I here, now?"

     "Maybe Raccoon didn't kill you."

     "And you believe that, why?" Raccoon asked.

     It was clear Ranma had painted himself in a corner.

     "As I said, they were distortions, the events are just based on real events," Raccoon said, "I mean, if you blew up poor Rei, I must have, right?"

     "No one has ever blown me up," Rei said.

     "No comments about blowup Reis!" Nabiki commanded, trying to figure a way out of this disaster, without revealing everything.  "Since you two had similar experiences, why don't you tell us about them.  Maybe it was the future you saw, we all get thrown into 1992, or frozen and defrosted, or something."

     She was glad that Asuka and Raccoon nodded, neither seemed that willing to start though, she hoped with a few questions to get them rolling, so she could stay out of it.

     "Hey," Ranma shouted, "If you were really me, how come you don't believe that I transform?"

     "Let's put this to rest, once and for all," Raccoon stood, "Stand up, Saotome, facing me."

     Ranma did.

     Nabiki looked on with interest, she doubted Raccoon would be stupid enough to start a fight.

     "Close your eyes, don't worry, the others will protect you," Raccoon said.

     Ranma glared, then relented, closing his eyes.

     Raccoon reached out and gently brushed Ranma's lips with his finger.

     "Hey!" Ranma jumped back, "Quit doing perverted stuff like that!  Guys don't kiss each other!"

     "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case," Raccoon sat down.

     "What's that mean?" Ranma demanded.

     "He didn't kiss you Horseface," Asuka told him, "He just touched you."

     "What does that prove?" Ranma demanded.

     "If you were really Ranko, you'd know," Raccoon said.

     Nabiki shook her head, she debated simply dousing Saotome, but it still might not work.  Nabiki thought of that, Ranma used to get splashed all the time, now, he usually changed of his own free will, but he changed almost as often.  Could that be the key to the cure? she wondered.

     "So, how did you defeat the Gambling King?" Asuka was proud of her mathematical machinations.

     Nabiki's head was spinning, she could honestly say she'd never heard of most of these people, and the level of idiocy was predictable, but unexpected.  Her father betting the dojo was, unfortunately, not out of character.  That `Ranma` or `Nabiki` had to rescue everybody, was typical.

     "He cheated," Ranma assured everyone.

     "Well, I made it appear he was cheating, which he was, just not the way I `caught` him."  Raccoon described a bit of sleight of hand, and his victory.

     "What about you, Spineless?" Asuka asked, "What did you dream?"

     "Something different, I was alone," Shinji told them, not elaborating further.  None of the others felt eager to push him.

     Raccoon checked his watch, "Well, as much as I've enjoyed this, Tendo-san and I have to go test some equipment for Search and Rescue."

     Nabiki checked her watch, "Oh, good grief."  She hated being late, although she wasn't looking forward to sitting in the simulators for hours, but at least Dr. Akagi could give them the training they'd been denied.  One of the few reasons not to hate Search and Rescue training, and all the work it was taking.

     "I don't think this is working," the Dive Captain heard clearly, but not through the throat mike.  "You can actually see them?" he could hardly believe Dr. Akagi and her assistant could see and hear the kids clearly.

     They'd attached him to the system with a circlet they called an A10 nerve clip, the trailing wires connected it to the console, all it gave him was a severe headache.  Dr. Akagi's staff had tested several more of the team, only the Chief of the Deck and two of the divers could get anything, and that was only voices, no picture.

     "Yes, well, is that the last of your equipment?" Dr. Akagi asked politely enough.

     "Yeah," Captain Madison scratched his head, the headphones worked fine, but there was no way for the pilots to talk in L.C.L., that limited what they could do, "Do you know why you can't talk in liquid?"

     "Probably the weight of the liquid and its viscosity," Dr. Akagi told him, "With exercise they might be able to make noise, but speech would probably take years to learn how to do it."

     "Any ideas about how to communicate?" Captain Madison asked.

     "Morse code?" Maya suggested lamely.

     Nobody thought that was an answer.

     "Well, I need to train them in operating the EVA, that will take several hours," Dr. Akagi said, "I'd like to get underway.'

     Captain Madison held up his hands, "Don't let me stop you."  He turned and left.

     "Okay kids, just relax," she told them, she turned to her team, "Let's start testing, don't forget to reset for their lower sync rates."  One of the technicians suddenly reset his recorder.  The other four pilots were 60 to 168%, Nabiki and Jeff were 38% and 27%, respectively.  The tests began.  Dr. Akagi was also curious about how they could sync with various EVAs with so little variation of their readings.  Rei, Ranma, Ranko and Shinji were all over the board, specializing in one EVA.  The other test she hadn't performed was a contamination test, the `calisthenics` of the sync testing.

     "Take them down as deep as you dare, right to the limits, but be ready to pull them out at any sign of trouble," Dr. Akagi told Maya.

     "Yes, Sempai," Maya told her, "They're going to have severe headaches tonight and tomorrow.  I pity anyone who crosses either of them tomorrow."

     Dr. Akagi nodded and walked back and forth to monitor their progress.

     Ranma watched his two fellow pilots enter the apartment with Dr. Akagi and Maya, he was glad he'd called Dr. Akagi, so he had dinner ready as soon as the group walked in.  Raccoon managed a slight smile, Nab-chan looked ready to kill and eat anything that presented itself.  Ranma remembered the special testing that Rit-chan did, and the way he felt after it.  Asuka had the good sense to keep her mouth shut afterwards, even Shinji was snappish after those tests.  The pair had gone through twice the usual test duration, he could just imagine how they felt, every bright light, loud sound, strong smell, etc. HURT, your body never seemed to stay the same size, so you banged your knuckles by overreaching, and you also missed things that anyone could have grabbed.

     This all combined to make pilots the most emotionally unstable after those tests, he was barely able to keep his temper, the others dealt with it in their own ways, like him, they usually hid in the pilot's changing room, unmoving, in the dark silence, until they could be civilized.

     This is the time, Ranma had to know something, he followed Raccoon into the bathroom, he needed to know if Raccoon would turn on him and the others, "So, Raccoon, did you tell Rit-chan you married her, in your dream?" he teased.

     "Yes, I did, and we had children," Raccoon said quietly, "I told Ranko this, it isn't news."

     "Do you still feel that way?" Ranma asked, "Are you planning on dating her, having kids?  Does Maya know, does she know she has competition or does she?"

     Raccoon frowned at that, "You forget, it was an amalgam of Miss Tendo and Dr. Akagi, are you planning on embarrassing both of them this way as well?" Raccoon asked, "Or is there a deeper reason to these questions?"

     Ranma was satisfied, if anybody had pressed him in that condition, he would have lashed out in some way.  Ranma wanted to try something else "No, but Ranko, Rit-chan, and Nab-chan, maybe even Langley and Rei, and you aren't doing anything about it.  I just can't figure you out."

     "Maybe from someone named Wild Horse, and with your lack of experiences, you've never considered gaining proficiency in restraint.  There is a great deal of difference between wanting and pursuing something.  Or more simply, I'm smart enough to know what I can never have.  Are you quite through?"

     "Yeah, I guess," Ranma said, "See you at dinner."  He left Raccoon in the bathroom.

     "What were you two talking about?" Rit-chan asked.

     "Oh, guy stuff, you know," he smiled, then realized she wasn't buying it.  Especially when Raccoon headed into the bedroom, glaring at Ranma the whole way, then carefully closing the door and shutting off the lights behind him.  Both knew he wasn't eating dinner, because of what Ranma had said to him.

     Ranma shrugged, smiled, then prepared for the tongue-lashing he knew he'd get.

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 19: Truth Beyond the Veil

     It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol I, bk. 1, ch. 2, Adam Smith

Chapter 19: Truth Beyond the Veil

May 23, 1947

Nobu no ni Haiku [a haiku used for climbing]

     Ritsuko was in her office, reading the reports on Ranma's reactions.  He'd almost gotten shot, because he didn't take firearms seriously.

     It irritated her that he could defeat more than five dozen unarmed hand-to-hand experts, and almost got killed by a `turned hostage` with a pocket pistol.

     "Hey, Doc."

     Just what I need, "Hello Jeff," she said.

     He was smiling, that meant someone was in trouble, or would be.  "I think I have a cure for Mister Saotome."  He set a box of ammunition and several strange objects on her desk.

     How do you fix you?

     "Pyrotechnics," he told her as she examined one.

     She set it down carefully and smiled, "I think I approve this.  Tell me what you have in mind."

     "Well the first stage, is to challenge his ego, and his martial arts' skills."

     Admiral Simson sat behind his desk, in his office.  Across the desk, Doctors Fuyutsuki and Samuels had laid out their case.  Simson had made up his mind what he was going to do as soon as they started, but their points would adjust how he'd carry out his plans.

     "Gentlemen, doctors, I can see your points, however," he paused, stared at the pair, "Every time I lowered the security protection of the pilots, within 72 hours, there was an attack.  If I could ignore what you've said, I'd assign a platoon of armed troops to follow them everywhere, they wouldn't be able to take a piss without a guard in the stall with them.  But I can't do that, can I?"

     "I don't think that would be a good idea," Samuels said.

     "Gentlemen, I know you aren't security experts, but you heard what I need to do.  I'd like some suggestions about how to carry out your requirements and mine, if that means I assign an armed psychoanalyst to each pilot, that's what I'll do."

     "Yes, sir."

     "Thank you, Admiral," Samuels stood and saluted.

     "Dr. Samuels, would you stay for a moment.  Dr. Fuyutsuki, thank you for your time and concerns."

     Once the NERV Deputy Commander had left, Admiral Simson gestured for the psychiatrist to sit down again.  "Doctor Samuels, are you aware that Asuka Soryu Langley was in this office, asking about the possibility of going armed?  Evidently both Mister Davis and Miss Ayanami go around armed.  The pistols both girls carry, or would carry, are artifacts from the dream the pilots shared," Admiral Simson paused, "I find it extremely unsettling that an overmastered enemy, who perhaps respected its opponent, gave them the means to defend themselves, from their main enemy, other humans."

     "That's not an unreasonable supposition," Samuels replied, "Did you approve?"

     "Yes, I even kicked it up to MacArthur, with my recommendations."

     Samuels chuckled, "If MacArthur approves, only Truman could overrule him.  Maybe."

     "That's the general idea," Simson said, "Considering the mortar attack, the other assassination attempts, all humans, I'm not going to recommend a reduction in force or visibility of Security, unless we get a major break in the case against these people."

     "Admiral!  Doctor," Captain Ramsey burst in, "We have a prisoner you both have to talk to."

     Simson turned a stern face to Samuels, "You arranged this."

     Samuels shrugged as he stood to follow Ramsey.

     Ranma took his hand out of the bowl of warm water, that sat on the edge of the bathroom sink.  He managed to get to the shower before he threw up.  He lay his head on the rim, savoring the cool of the tile, quietly praying that this ferocious headache would go away, before Nab-chan and Raccoon got home from their training.

     "Note, changing back and forth 30 times in two minutes, is not a good idea," Ranma was glad that they'd developed the 'dip your hand' method, replacing dumping a bucket over his or her head.

     The headache was easing, Ranma still needed to talk to Raccoon.  He'd considered having Ranko get Ranma and Raccoon together.  His first plan had been a bust, he couldn't afford the multiple changes that it would require, changing back and forth between Ranma and Ranko.

     "Well, there's another chance," Ranma said, in a poor imitation of Ranko's voice, "That's not it," it was better, but he knew it wouldn't fool Raccoon.  He glanced at the bowl of cold water on the sink, wondering if Ranko would be better imitating Ranma.  He decided to rest as his headache eased.  He still had a couple of hours before they returned.

     Nabiki honestly felt good, as she returned home, despite the physical exhaustion and that her head felt like it would explode any moment.  Half the training was spent simply waiting for the decompression time to elapse, so the crew quizzed both of them relentlessly on everything they had learned so far.

     "At least it's better that regular school," Nabiki said, as she removed her shoes, she still wanted to belt Raccoon for his comment that now she could go after sunken treasure herself.

     "I do care what you think," Ranko's voice echoed through the apartment, "You're going to do what I told you.  AND YOU ARE GOING TO BEHAVE YOURSELF!  Is that understood?"

     Ranma's voice answered her, "Where do you get the right - "

     Nabiki could scarcely believe her ears, Ranma arguing with Ranko?

     Ranma yelped.

     "That's where," Ranko said angrily, "You want answers, you do it my way."

     "Are you always so bossy?" Ranma asked.

     "Raccoon, Ranma wants to talk to you, and he promised to behave.  If he doesn't, I'll be right out to convince him," Ranko said.

     Nabiki had traced the voices to the closed door of the bathroom, she didn't know what kind of game Ranma was playing.

     "And I'm not in a good mood," Ranko announced, "If you don't behave, I'm not going to talk to either of you, ever again."

     A moment later Ranma sheepishly left the bathroom, closed the door behind him as he waved to Nabiki and Raccoon.

     "Is she all right?" Raccoon asked.

     Nabiki had to see, she went into the bathroom to see what or who was in there.

     "She, well, it's kind of embarrassing, female problems," Ranma said, "Maybe Nabiki can help her, let's leave them alone.  I had to promise to behave, but I need to talk."  He hurried Raccoon to the door.

     The two left by the time Nabiki came out of the empty bathroom, she was beginning to wonder if that Nitrogen Narcosis stuff could happen on dry land.

     "Ranko described the dream, it was exactly like mine, right down to walking around naked as Ranko."  Ranma glanced over at Raccoon, from anyone else, he would have expected a joke about Ranma being `manly`.

     Raccoon merely nodded, "Go on."

     "Well, I don't know what to do.  It's affected my practice, it's affected Ranko, I bet you know that . . . she admitted, to get what she wanted, she thought about using force.  When I was rubbing Nab-chan's shoulders, well, I kept thinking about other things."

     "That is worrying," Raccoon replied, "She'd never use force, neither would you, under normal conditions, but you both might accept an invitation, or solicit one.  Which might not be a good idea."

     That's an understatement! Ranma thought as they walked out of the stairwell and across the parking lot, he didn't see Nab-chan pursuing, so they could talk.  If she ever figures out what I almost did, she'd make sure I flunked the basic definition of 'manly'.

     "I'm no expert, but there is supposed to be a balance of male and female energies, what happens if that balance is disrupted?  Would this lecherousness and lack of concentration be a result?"

     Ranma squirmed, remembering the conversation they'd had yesterday, and that Raccoon assumed Ranma was `claiming` Rit-chan and Nab-chan for himself.  "Yeah, I don't know, but that sounds right."

     "What help do you need?  I can't affect the struggle directly," Raccoon asked, "I'm not the expert, I never did understand it properly."

     "How do I find them?  The panda, I mean.  I want this over with!"

     "Random walk, you can't search for them, you're walking around in your own mind, you will find them when it is appropriate, not before, and not after," Raccoon explained, "I can't explain it any better than that.  My best advice, quit investigating this.  Concentrate on repairing your link with Ranko."

     "Why does everyone tell me," Ranma began, then hastily added, "And tell Ranko, to leave this alone?  First Rei, now you."

     "You've been walking dreams in a very controlled way, for less than two months," Raccoon explained, "I've been walking for years, I had better teachers, who'd done it before.  Teachers I had absolute confidence in, who took me through a few trips into the spirit realm.  All this, before I traveled within my own spirit and mind."

     "Then teach me!" Ranma said.

     "You don't trust me, and I don't trust you.  Not enough for this, so don't ask."

     "What about Ranko?  I trust her, do you?" Ranma asked.

     "You think I can teach her, then she can teach you," Raccoon turned Ranma to face him, "The experience is intensely personal, guaranteeing survival and sanity would need an experienced master . . . one you can trust, that is not me, in either category.  Ranko would take years to train, if she has the talent.  Can you wait years?"

     Ranma wanted to disagree, but if what he was saying was true, No, I don't trust him, not as much as I need.  I don't want to wait either.

     "So what do you suggest?" Ranma asked, "To improve my link with Ranko?"

     "The simplest thing of all - "

     "No way!" Ranma protested, "I ain't' doin' it, ya can't make me!  How could you even suggest such a thing?  I thought you liked her?!"

     "Try spending some time with her," Raccoon continued.

     Ranma embarrassedly deflated, his anger gone.

     "Do things you both like, that do not include martial arts.  Do you even know what she likes to do, besides martial arts?"

     I don't really know what I like to do, besides martial arts, Ranma thought.

     "I thought so," Raccoon said.

     "It's not that," Ranma said defensively.

     "I can talk to her, I think she might like to go out with you.  You might try gymnastics, go to a meet, or talk to some of the club members about teaching you two.  It depends on physical movement, timing and grace.  If you two can't master that, no one can."

     Ranma was suspicious of the compliment, he waited for the insult to follow as a complement.  It never came.

     "What about you, what do you like to do that's physical?" Ranma asked.

     "About the only thing I do that you don't do better, is play musical instruments, and shooting," Raccoon told him.

     Ranma was about to make an automatic comment on guns, or any weapon for that matter, then thought better of it.  If shooting is a martial art . . . big if! he discarded the thought.

     They walked on in silence for several minutes.  Ranma considered if there was anything else he could ask, the answers he got, while probably correct, didn't solve his problems.

     "Was any of this helpful?" Raccoon asked, "Or do you have more questions?"

     "That's what I was just thinking," Ranma replied, "The test on Sunday, why are you two so interested?"

     "What you do, is theoretically impossible, yield strength, propagation of nerve impulses, for any number of reasons," Raccoon told him, "I actually had someone tell me that the reason I shot the head off a rattlesnake, was that it struck at the bullet.  That's patently absurd, nothing is that fast, except you, maybe.  If the theory doesn't match the facts, you change the theory, that requires experiments."

     "Sounds dumb to me," Ranma said, "But I've got proof the method works.  My experiments with ki are enough to prove that."

     The two boys entered the apartment.  Nabiki had started dinner.  She wanted answers and she wanted them now.  Raccoon headed to the bathroom, Ranma ran some cold water from the sink on his hand.

     "What the Hell is going on?" Nabiki demanded.

     Ranko held out her palm, and waited.  Nabiki crossed her arms over her chest and stared, If she thinks she can shake me down . . .

     Raccoon walked out, glanced over as he sat at the dining room table, spreading out his homework, "Are you two going to kill each other before or after you finish your homework?"

     "Nab-chan wants answers, she wants to know what you and Ranma were doing out there," Ranko said.

     "It was private," Raccoon replied, sighed, "Sometimes he can be such a manly man."

     Ranko left the kitchen, and a rather green Nabiki, walked behind Raccoon and gave him a satisfied little smile, and a sigh of her own.  "Nab-chan just doesn't understand us," Ranko walked back, facing Nabiki in the kitchen.

     Nabiki watched in amazement as Ranko pulled up her shirt and wistfully ran the fingertips of one hand over her exposed belly.  "Nab-chan just doesn't understand how it feels, to be the source of new life, to know it's growing inside you.  How much a woman it makes you feel."

     Nabiki opened her eyes, looked at the ceiling of the bedroom.  She could feel the cold cloth across her forehead, and that someone, probably Ranko, had put her in her pajamas.  She hated when the floor jumped up and hit you, when you weren't expecting it.

     Then Ranko's face appeared in her field of view.  Ranma couldn't have been saying that!  That he's, no she's PREGNANT!  That BOTH OF THEM have been . . . with Raccoon!?

     "Feeling better?" Ranko gave her the smile that melted boys' hearts, when he was Ranma, it melted hers too, "You didn't let me finish, before you fainted," Ranko said brightly, "I wasn't talking about being pregnant."

     Nabiki felt a wave of relief as Ranko lifted her to a sitting position, then she noted Ranko wasn't wearing her shirt.

     Ranko straddled Nabiki's hips, hugging her close, "Oh Nab-chan, Nab-chan, Nab-chan, it's so wonderful," Ranko whispered, while kissing Nabiki's neck.

     Nabiki had fantasized about this, but then it was Ranma doing this, not Ranko.

     "Raccoon mentioned that stuff that makes you transform like I do," Ranko waited.

     Nabiki nodded, in her stunned state, she couldn't tell exactly where this was going.

     "Oh Nab-chan," Ranko moaned as she kneaded her body against Nabiki, "Only you could be the father of my children."

     Ranko carefully closed the door to the bedroom, she'd already put her shirt back on.

     "That was particularly cruel," Raccoon said, as he waited beside the door.

     "Well, I think she deserved it," Ranko replied, noted he didn't sound disapproving, "Always hitting me with something to get a reaction."

     "You finally found her weak spot," Raccoon headed back for the kitchen.

     Ranko followed, "Yeah, after the PX incident, all you have to do is shatter her whole view of the world.  Which is a little too easy," Ranko added worriedly as she followed him into the kitchen.

     "She loves Ranma you know," Raccoon warned, "Playing around with her feelings, isn't very nice."

     "She does it," Ranko replied, "Besides, if she does . . . what you said, why doesn't she act like it?"

     "Have you ever been so scared of something, that you'd retreat anywhere to get away from it?" Raccoon asked.

     "Oh course!  You were . . . oh, I get it.  Little Miss 'I Have the World by the Balls and I Just Have to Squeeze' is - is what, scared, of Ranma?"  Ranko didn't like the way this conversation was going.

     "Not like me, I'm scared of the cause, she's afraid of the effect."

     "Her world view," Ranko was putting the pieces together, analyzing the actions of other as if they were martial arts moves.  They didn't quite fit.  It still didn't work too well, yet.  "What about you?  Which one of us do you like?"

     "Well, first you have to define the us, and I don't think however you define it, you'll like that answer," Raccoon told her.

     "You don't like me?" Ranko was shocked, "After all what you've taught me?  And all we've . . . "

     "Ranko, it's not you.  I was married to someone who looked like Ritsuko-sensei, and acted like Tendo-san, and if the dream was any indication, they're going to be very similar when Tendo-san grows up.  My wife was about Ritsuko's age when I was torn away.  If you think you're confused, think about how I feel," he turned away, shoulders slumped, "I get up in the morning, see Sakai or Kairi practicing martial arts, go out to get the coffee ready for my wife, my eldest daughter Kyoko comes out, looking like she just went ten rounds with Sakai, Kairi, AND their mother.  Then my beautiful wife of thirteen wonderful years comes out of her bedroom, discusses what has to be done at work today, the kids going to school . . . then I remember, I'm in 1947, I'm one of the kids, these aren't my children, Ritsuko isn't my wife, and I . . . " he was silent for a while.

     Ranko sat up on the counter, left him alone for a while, took the time to consider the teasing, and how Raccoon had been acting recently, He can't have his `wife`, as he left her, or her personality in another body.

     "Last Monday," Raccoon said softly as he turned towards her, "What I thought of as I woke, I remembered the first really big typhoon we went through, my family.  Our littlest ones were out of Tokyo, safe with friends in China.  As the wind shook the building, Kairi, so scared that the house was going to blow away, slept with us, clinging tight to daddy, Kyoko, a year and a half older and braver, thought she was just silly.  She and daddy had reinforced the house and the dojo, nothing could blow it down, but she had to keep Kairi company."  He brushed the hair out of Ranko's eyes, "Half the time I see you, I think of what a beautiful young woman you are, the other half I'm so proud of Kairi, my little tomboy terror has grown into this beautiful young woman, then I realize where and when I am.  If you calculate the years I've spend in the Dreamlands, the apparent years of that dream, the place I've spent the least time, is the Waking World, this reality.  Ritsuko looks exactly like my wife did the last day I saw her, if you want to shock Ranma, tell him if he wants to know how Nabiki will act when she grows up."  He jerked his thumb towards NERV HQ, "The same elegant, cool intellect," he said in austere tones, then wistfully, "And beneath the ice, the same gentle strength, the same playful warmth.  I can remember our first date, the first time we made love, we teased each other mercilessly," he admitted, "The look on her face the first time each of our children called her mommy, I remember it all, in perfect clarity, but it's all an illusion."

     Ranko shook her head, I thought my love life was screwed up!

     "I'm aware of how you feel but . . . "

     "You just want to be friends," Ranko said hopelessly.

     "I am not saying that at all . . . I do want to be your friend.  I never met anybody who needed friends as much as you do," he leaned close, touching his forehead to hers, "It's just there's a lot in my head to sort out."

     She grabbed him, hugging him tight, and was pleased when he hugged her back.  One arm around her waist, then the other, the first time he'd done that.

     "Just give me some time to sort things out, I can't promise I'll say yes to a relationship that ends up in a home and family, but right now, I don't know what to say.  Can you tolerate being nothing more than friends or teacher and student, for a while?"

     "Or father and daughter?" Ranko asked wryly, Is that what I'm looking for, friends and parents who love me, rather than a girlfriend or boyfriend? she didn't know.  "Yeah, maybe."

     Neither wanted to break the contact, a small part of Ranma wished Nab-chan would just do this, admit she was hurt and confused, and come to one of the others for solace and support, instead of getting angry and defensive.  She wondered if Nab-chan knew how much fun this was, just holding and being held.  At least Ranma would know that he didn't have to go any farther to impress a girl.  Maybe I should try Rei's method with Shinji, just hold her hand, Ranko thought.

     "We have redeployed the two Motor Rifle divisions around the main site, and additional brigade of tanks and infantry around the Ural and Kuznetski depots," General Borodin told the officers and Orgomniy pilots who had been defending the Tunguska base, without relief for nearly a month.  The harsh, unadorned concrete walls of the briefing room repeated his words back to him.  The regiments were mere reinforced squads now, so they'd run the five pilots and their units ragged.  All of them desperately needed maintenance Borodin looked at the weary children, Were they a bit older, I would tell them to get drunk for a week while we repair their machines.

     "Does Intelligence have anything to add?" Borodin turned to the GRU man, Borodin found it disturbing that no one seemed to know this man's name, he was just agent 1563.  He couldn't believe he was the only one concerned about that.

     "The plans of our enemies are still unknown.  We do know they are planning a major offensive, we can only hope that they will wait until we are ready, as did Von Manstein and Model."

     That earned a slight laugh from the assembled troops, "The Commissars will continue to exhort you all to be true Comrades, Soviet Men and Women.  They may not know it, but your determination has set new standards of what the State can expect of its Heroes.  Several of you and your Comrades have been honored as Heroes of the Soviet Union. Others have been given recognition of their efforts to preserve and further World Socialism.  The General will forgive me, I hope awarding him the Order of Lenin, will mollify him."

     Borodin was amazed, he'd not expected this, and with his connections, that was saying something.  He allowed the GRU man to hang the ribbon around his neck.

     The rest of the officers and pilots received some award.  A few of the living received Hero of the Soviet Union.  Borodin knew it was good for morale, until they properly trained and equipped these new Motor Rifle divisions, morale was practically all they had.  The Chief Commissar gave an exceedingly lackluster speech, Borodin spent the entire time wishing for a useful officer to inspire the troops instead of boring them, then he dismissed the troops.  He and the senior officers reconvened in his office.

     Borodin surveyed the men, some had been mere senior sergeants a month ago, with the exception of the Commissar, all had done prodigies in keeping the base defended, Even this intelligent sraniy' [shitty intellectual] had put his skinny ass on the line, Borodin considered the GRU man.

     Borodin knew a Russian General was supposed to shout, and bluster, and swear, he did none, he was too tired, his troops were tired.  They had been doing everything they could.  The problem was Moscow, he wouldn't have shouted or sworn there either, he would have used a machine gun, and a trench as a mass grave.  "Is it truly that bad?" he asked.

     "We have mountains of shells," the logistics chief said, "Of the wrong caliber.  I am glad the new divisions are heavy on the new T-34/85, the JS-2 and JS-3's.  We have many shells for them.  But the Ogromniys and the OT-34's are effectively out."

     "We may have a solution.  A rotary cannon of 57 mm.  These would use much less of the material.  The breech would remain closed to give great velocity."

     "German scientists?" Borodin asked.

     The chief scientist shifted uncomfortably, "A good idea is a good idea.  The idea is actually American, a Dr. Gatling, we merely adapted it for our use."

     "What of the 100 mm. guns?" the GRU man asked.

     "The force of the recoil shatters the armor.  We haven't discovered a way to reduce the recoil to manageable levels, and keep the performance adequate," the scientist replied.

     "The rail line?" Borodin asked.

     "It links, finally, Vladivostok to the main site, through the depots, to Moscow and to Arkhangelsk," the GRU man said, "We can now get help, if they chose to send it."

     Borodin was thinking about other help they might get, if their enemies were massing a heavy attack, even all the forces assembled might not stop them.  If I can get it through my political masters, he thought hopelessly, knowing the chore of convincing them.

May 24, 1947


     Ranko turned around stares into the bathroom mirror, she could find no reason she was uncomfortable in Nabiki's dress, it fit fine, it looked good.  Nabiki was also very subdued, Ranko couldn't hear her in her room.  Ranko was worried about that.  After Raccoon and Ranma had been shot at, Nab-chan had been in a bad mood, first her bad mood was loud, now it was quiet, but still a bad mood.

     Ranko didn't know if this outing would help or hurt.  She was also very nervous about going on a `date` with Raccoon, although it could be that Ranma was going on a date with Nabiki, and Raccoon was going out with Hiroko.  Frankly, she wasn't at all certain how all this made her feel, beyond uncomfortable.  A little jealous, a little nervous about being jealous, I'm a guy, she thought, Why would I be jealous of Nab-chan or Hiroko-chan, because I can't figure out which of us is Raccoon's `date`, and I'd be petrified if it was me.

     "You're looking very nice," Ritsuko entered the bathroom where Ranko was finishing checking how she looked in the bathroom mirror, for the ninth time.  "What are you anxious about?" Ritsuko asked, "You're just a group of friends going out.  It isn't like you've going to marry them."

     Ranko winced at that, "Thanks, Doc."  Why am I doing this? Ranko thought, Am I learning this for martial arts?  Or because Nab-chan and Raccoon asked me?  "I wish I knew."

     "Knew what?" Ritsuko asked.

     "Why I'm doin' this, why I'm eager and scared?" Ranko shrugged, "I don't know, maybe I don't want to know."

     "Well," Ritsuko kissed her forehead, "Relax, and enjoy yourself."

     Gendo was not impressed by the 'understated opulence' of the place.  The fawning sycophants who surrounded this man might have called all the art and furniture 'understated elegance', Gendo knew well enough he was looking at two months operating budget for the entire NERV operation, tastefully arranged around the room.  The room represented the incomplete internal defenses, the untested equipment, the reduced research library.  All to show any visitor stupid enough to fall for it, that this man hadn't let his wealth spoil him.  No, he was still evil and self-centered clear through, Gendo thought, All his money, magic and schemes would never change that.

     Gendo resented that they had ordered him` here, the harassment of the pilots was to remind Gendo exactly who was in charge. Gendo also knew that they didn't dare go after his American Military masters, who were not `sophisticated` enough to follow the subtle rules of the game.

     NERV Japan invited Gendo into the dining room, closing the shoji panel behind him.

     Another illusion, to simulate a `common touch`, Gendo thought, as he knelt at the table, a huge piece of etched glass, showing various mythological events of Japanese history, retold with a mythos slant.  Gendo wondered if the artist had gone mad before, during or after completing this masterpiece.  He knelt across the table from his `host`.  The man served the rice himself, along with three pickled plums precisely placed, on another `tasteful` piece of lacquerware, that probably cost a month of Gendo's wages.

     Like the rest, the pusillanimous food, false modesty, only someone with a private staff of a dozen master chefs could have the rice and pickled plums made `perfectly`.  An extravagant gourmet, who desperately wanted not to appear a gourmand.

     Gendo appreciated the finer things, but the obsession with having them and at hideous expense, appearing not to, sickened him.  He wondered if these idiots really understood what they were seeking, or if they were enjoying the privileges of vast wealth, extorted, stolen or conjured by their membership, and the immense political power, all with the restraint and conscience of a two-year-old.

     "You should realize that we only have the best intentions for the human race.  We simply cannot progress any further," his host finally spoke as he served the tea.

     Gendo had expected water, imported water taken from spring in the Himalayas at the cost a dozen lives per gallon, but water, Yes, he thought sarcastically, We haven't advanced a step in 2000 years, ignoring the fact that it took 500,000 years to advance to that point.  Gendo coughed slightly, "You must admit, I'm in the difficult position of maintaining a public and a private operation.  As well as answering to both SEELE, and the American government."

     "We expect you to remember where your true allegiance lies," the man said, quietly, pouring more tea for both of them, "While continuing your balancing act."

     Gendo glances at the niches the security guards had disappeared into, waiting to spring on him from `hiding`, to protect their master.  As if Gendo would resort to physical violence.  He doubted the arrogant man's mystical defenses were any less expensive than the rest of the furnishings.  Gendo knew, like any meeting of the committee, he would have to bow and scrape, and wheedle for what he needed, all the while hiding his feelings of contempt for these fools.  He actually had more respect for the pilots, and the subtle games they were playing, with each other, with the Occupation forces, with NERV.  He allowed himself a smile, Miss Langley's recent gambit was truly inspired.  The Peacemaker granted her in the dreams was now in her possession, and she'd managed to send a message home, bypassing all the NERV censors, by asking MacArthur to autograph her copy of Achtung Panzer, the only copy signed by both Rommel and Patton.  MacArthur had the newsreel cameras there and Asuka managed a little speech about Germans and Americans working closely in the future.  While arranging the MacArthur meeting, she had noted to Admiral Simson that their enemy had given them the weapons as a reward for their victory, their enemy clearly considered human threats the paramount danger, effectively bypassing Captain Katsuragi's unspoken ban.  That kind of subtlety he could appreciate.

     The man across the table noisily slurped his tea, as Gendo considered his options.  The man suddenly stood up.  Gendo suddenly scrambled back, the look on the man's face promised violence.

     The man fell forward onto the table with such force he shattered it.  Gendo retreated as the man went into violence convulsions, cutting himself to ribbons on the broken glass.

     The Security guards broke from cover and closed in on their boss, then turned their attentions to Gendo.  He could almost hear their questions, there was no way Gendo could have made the attack, he'd touched nothing since entering the penthouse, and cast no spell, he'd eaten and drunk only what their boss had served him.

     Gendo also knew they wouldn't consider any of that relevant, their boss was dead, there was only one outsider in the house, you killed him first.  Then you interrogated everyone else.

     Rei shoved the shoji panel open, hurling back the guard nearest Gendo.  One of the guards reached into his coat.  Rei drew her Schofield from her skirt pocket, and the holster concealed inside.  She shot the man, the other guard, and a third man who ran out with a submachine gun.

     Gendo watched her scan the area, outwardly passive, but he knew better.  He didn't move, let her continue her job.  Her search for additional threats found none, she twirled the pistol as she retuned it to the hidden holster with a flourish.

     Gendo detected no change in her expression, but this new streak of jaunty flamboyance worried him.

     "We should go, Commander."

     That also concerned him, she wasn't ordering him, but she hadn't been so forthright in expressing her opinions in the past, even with him.  He also suspected if he decided to stay, she would listen and appreciate his position, while she bodily carried him from the room.  He wasn't sure if this change was entirely an improvement.

     The pair headed out.

     It was clearly an assassination, likely staged for my benefit.  But how did they bypass his defenses, the tasters, all the rest? This disturbed Gendo.  He wondered how something like this could be arranged, who had done it, whose side were they on?

     The obvious solution was that SEELE, or this specific member, had irritated a Great Old One, and the creature had struck him down, or that SEELE was reminding him that no one was irreplaceable or untouchable.  He smiled, if it were the former, he relished informing the old men, including his theory.

     Was this a message to me? he wondered as they left the private elevator, and walked into a company of Marines and Army troops.

     "He is now safe," Rei told Captain Ramsey as he approached.

     Gendo wondered how the military had found this place, even he didn't know exactly where he was.      "Good, Miss Ayanami, this is a direct order: You will go with this squad, and see the Commander home safely, do you understand these orders as I have presented them?"


     Gendo could practically see the storm of conflicting impulses Ramsey had raised in Rei's mind.  Her ultimate loyalty was to him, yet she would never disobey a lawful order, and this order would protect him, giving it greater precedence, but what if he disobeyed?  Gendo solved the dilemma, "I would prefer to go home.  This has been somewhat disturbing.  I take it the guard will be keeping me there."

     "Yes, sir," Ramsey said, "We received word about an attempt on your life.  We take a dim view of that sort of thing."  He nodded, dismissing them.

     Rei gently took him by the hand, leading him to the truck and the convoy that would be taking him home.

     "I am pleased they did not harm you," she told him as they rode.

     "Thank you."

     Ranko took her seat between Nab-chan and Raccoon in the base theater.  Hiroko, beside Nab-chan, was squirming in her borrowed dress.  She'd made a comment about 'fraternizing with the gods', both Nab-chan and Raccoon laughed.  Ranko considered that the creatures they'd fought and eaten, it didn't seem very wise to joke about gods.

     Before the performance started, Raccoon told her that he was going to quiz her afterward about what each of the characters were `saying` by dance, at any time, whether they were in the forefront 'center stage', he called it, or in the background.  So Ranko watched.  She couldn't quite figure out everything going on, but she watched all the characters how they danced towards, around and at each other.  It didn't tell her much.  She was glad when intermission came, her head was hurting.

     Hiroko accompanied Raccoon as he walked around to stretch his legs.  She felt extremely nervous in her borrowed finery.  She saw that both the Boss and Ranko were in simple dresses, but they were theirs, not patched hand-me-downs from two older sisters.  She was still a little intimidated, as they descended into the crowd, smoking up a storm.

     "I'm glad you could attend," Raccoon told her, "As glad as you are."

     "Is it that obvious?" Hiroko asked, wondering why even Ayanami-san knew how she felt, but the Boss didn't.

     "You must forgive her," Raccoon told her, "She doesn't believe she deserves to be cared about."

     That cut into Hiroko's heart, "Why?"

     "Without betraying a confidence, you have heard all the comments about her?"

     Hiroko nodded angrily, she heard them, and tried to let it pass as the flapping of ignorant lips.

     "Add two sisters whom everyone worshiped and admired because they were different from her and perfect, but she kept them from starving," Raccoon said, "I never said that, you never heard it."

     "Understood," Hiroko said, "So, she's sabotaging her - relationship - with Saotome, on purpose?  Because she's afraid of . . . what?"

     "That he'll really love her for who she is, rather than that he owes her.  The force of her feelings frightens her.  She's considerably more passionate that she's comfortable with.  Suddenly, she is facing something she has absolutely no control over, herself.  Saotome has problems with anyone accepting him, especially girls or women, especially pretty ones who don't get violent."

     "Ranma or Ranko?" Hiroko asked, "You are aware of how she feels about you, sempai?"  Hiroko smiled.

     "Hopefully, she'll find someone else, I am not a nice person.  Although I can behave myself.  'Society needs butchers as well as shepherds.'"

     "Blunted Affect?" Hiroko asked, "And a touch of Schizoid?"

     "On what do you base that?"

     "I notice you didn't refute it.  That liplock you had with Ranko.  Nobody's that good an actor.  Most of the boys and over half the girls were on the verge of nosebleeds or fainting, Ranko included.  Yet you let her go, you also never treated her the way most boys did, even Saotome."

     "It's not true Schizoid, it's reinforced by Operant Conditioning."

     "That simulates Schizoid Personality?  I don't want to know, but I was right about Blunted Affect?"

     Raccoon nodded, "You'd be a good psychiatrist.  I've managed to fool most people."

     "You lack an ego, nobody is that even-tempered, if they cared," she joked, "You wouldn't even take advantage, if she crawled into bed with you.  Poor Ranko."

     "True, more than you know."

     "You also might consider that Ranko may sense it, and may not care.  You've got a dangerous air and are a perfect gentleman.  For someone like Ranko, who's got more drooling school boys after her then she can shake a stick at, that's really attractive.  The more you try and scare her off and refuse to actually hurt her, draws her closer.  She knows she can tame the beast that all the others fear.  That's practically out of every girls' fairy tale fantasy."  Hiroko snickered at his shocked/sickened look, she realized she'd just shot his plan so full of holes, it not only sank, it disintegrated.

     "By the way, from the scuttlebutt, no one wants to go up against you, after all, you stood up against the invincible Saotome Ranma.  Most of the school is scared of him, anybody else would be pissing themselves when he threw that punch."

     "In a schoolyard fight, he would have creamed me," Raccoon admitted.

     "Everybody knows that, and everyone knows you know that.  You still stood up for her, against him.  You're either insanely brave, completely stupid, or some mix of the two," Hiroko told him, "Any advice for me?"

     "The same advice I gave Ranko, try touching her, in a nonthreatening, non-sexual way.  Get her used to it."

     "I'd think you'd object," Hiroko said.

     "I've seen the look you give Shinji and me.  Nabiki-san is just the most available and admirable."

     "You can say that, with all the grief she'd given you?"

     "She's protecting Ranma, she doesn't know I was and am trying to protect him as well," Raccoon said, as they turned around to head back.

     "I've done some pretty awful things in my life.  Most of them don't bother me, but I've got to be careful of that."

     "Well, the doctor is in, maybe I can practice on you," Hiroko told him, "That way you won't have to kill me, doctor patient confidentiality."

     "Well, I don't want to be `cured` until this is over with.  Being physically unable to get overexcited, is too much of an advantage," Raccoon told her.

     "Well, I'll be a strict Freudian, you should be cured in six to seven centuries."

     Nabiki didn't know why Hiroko and Raccoon were laughing when they returned from their walk.  She was a little nervous.  Hiroko was almost as sharp as she was, Raccoon was a ways ahead of her, if they were cooperating against her . . . They'd never do that, she reminded herself.

     "So what dark conspiracy were you two hatching?" Nabiki asked.

     "We were deciding how to get you and Saotome together, and how to civilize him before we let that happen," Raccoon told her.

     Nabiki and Ranko glanced at each other.

     "Yes, Ranko-san, we're going to help the Boss steal Ranma away from you," Hiroko added.

     Nabiki and Ranko exchanged sick grins, hoping that neither of the other two understood what they were really saying.  As the two laughed at Nabiki and Ranko's distress.

     "Boss, I'm sorry, but you should see your face," Hiroko said, "Toji's right, Saotome isn't interested in girls, unless they could teach him martial arts."

     "Yes, some old ghoul with the knowledge of a dozen grandmasters, that's Saotome's ideal bride," Raccoon said.

     Nabiki felt a distinct `down elevator` feeling in the pit of her stomach, Cologne is Ranma's ideal bride!? she wondered how much was accurate, how much was teasing, and how much was her imagination, and where had Raccoon come up with that phrase, 'old ghoul' that was an exact quote of Ranma's insult of Cologne, he could never have heard it, Coincidence?

     Nabiki watched Ranko as the second half started.  Ranko was staring at the performance, as intently as if it were a martial arts battle.  Raccoon and Hiroko had seated themselves on either side of Nabiki.  Every so often, one or the other would lean forward or back, and smile or point.  As her anger or confusion grew, Hiroko or Raccoon would pat her on the shoulder, then watch the show for a few minutes before doing it again.

     Nabiki knew they weren't really conspiring against her, but she still felt like Asuka had mentioned she felt around Shinji and Rei: they were communicating in a way she couldn't penetrate.

     I'm just being paranoid, she thought desperately as the ballet came to an end.  They remained in their seats, waiting for the crowd to clear.  Nabiki noted several other patrons, who had a clear view of their seats and the areas around them, were also staying put, "Security?" Nabiki asked.

     "Of course," Raccoon replied, "I think we'll have to live with it from now on."

     Hiroko patted her hand, "You're all very valuable."

     Nabiki nodded, tried to relax.  She wasn't comfortable about being followed everywhere, in Nerima, if someone followed her, it was an enemy.  Here, she couldn't be sure.

     The four got up from their seats, "There is one thing I'd like to know," Hiroko asked, "Did you even try to invite Ranma to this?  I think he might have enjoyed it.  The athleticism and precision of the choreography."

     "Are you kidding?" Raccoon said as he turned to Nabiki and Ranko, "I know how you two feel about him, but - I've never met a more morose individual in my life, and I grew up around New England Yankees and Amerinds.  Those people practically define stoic, they don't hold a candle to him."

     "That's not fair," Nabiki looked at Ranko for support.

     "Yes it is," Raccoon said, he knelt down so he was face-to-face with Ranko, " 'I'm a Martial Artist', you both say it, but only you enjoy it.  I've seen you practice, you love it, the grace, the power, a joyous dance, it's truly beautiful."

     Ranko blushed and looked away at that.

     "What exactly Ranma . . . I don't know, Ranma is just grim.  I swear he's just doing it so he'll be better than you, a dismal duty.  Mathematically perfect, but the soul of a mechanism."

     "If you give your life to something," Hiroko added, "You should at least enjoy it.  To just do it because you have to, who'd want to live like that?  You have to be able to weather the troubles, if there's no joy, no love, there's no depth."

     Nabiki and Ranko exchanged queasy looks.  Neither could adequately defend Ranma.  They couldn't tell Hiroko the truth, and Raccoon didn't believe it.

     "I'm sorry to shock you two.  I know how much you both love Ranma, but honestly, I don't think he really loves anything, not himself, not martial arts, not anyone else.  He just doesn't know anything else.  It's sad, and I haven't the faintest idea how to help him," Raccoon said, "It's why I can't really hate him, no matter how much he scares me, I just feel sorry for him.  I mean I can't imagine having nothing and no one.  It may be why he hates you so much Ranko."

     "When did this happen?  I thought he was in love with her," Hiroko said.

     "Oh, he does, and he hates her too.  That's why I keep warning you how dangerous he is to you, Ranko.  Anything he can do with martial arts, you're right behind him, or a little ahead of him.  And worse, you enjoy it, a lot more than he does."

     "He's a lot more like me than you think," Ranko said sullenly.

     "He loves you because you two are so much alike, Ranko, and he hates you because even when you lose or get frustrated, you still love being alive, being with, nurturing and touching other people, doing `boy` things and `girl` things.  He can't let himself go and just live, and isn't that what the Tao and martial arts are all about?  A way of just being?"

     Ranko merely stared straight ahead, unable to counter what the other two were saying.

     As they walked through the nearly empty theater, Ranko was trying to keep all the moves and characters and actions in the ballet straight in her head, after that last conversation, she knew Raccoon would ask some off the wall question, and she had to be ready to answer it.

     "So, Ranko, what did the mouse really want?" Raccoon asked.

     Ranko paused, deeply considered, "He was in love with the princess, but he didn't want to marry her, he wanted her to be happy."

     "Why did you call it 'he'?" Hiroko asked.

     Ranko paled, considered, "It moved like a guy."

     "All that means is that it was a male playing the role," Raccoon said, "Hiroko brings up a good point.  Could the mouse have been a girl?  One with a crush, or just admired the princess?"

     Ranko stopped, stared, she closely examined the other three, she glanced at Hiroko and Nab-chan, and barely caught Raccoon's warning glare, before she blurted out what was now so obvious.

     "No, it was a guy," Ranko said, staring straight at Hiroko, "If the mouse were another girl, she would have taken unfair advantage of that."  She noticed the swiftly hidden look of comprehension on Hiroko's face.

     Hiroko suddenly stepped behind Nab-chan, taking her shoulders, "Please, Boss, protect me.  They're both so smart, and I'm not.  Waah!"

     Nab-chan looked sour, she was obviously considering belting all three of them, what saved them was she couldn't decide who to hit first.  "Oh, good, our ride's here."

     The personnel carrier rolled up.

     "Should I have the Marines protect you?" Nab-chan asked the trembling Hiroko.

     "Oh would you," Hiroko beamed, "I'd be ever so grateful."

     "Did you eat any of Misato's cooking?" Nab-chan asked as they climbed aboard, "You've been acting very weird, even for you."

     "Only a little piece of fruitcake," Hiroko said, "It was rather damp.  That I remember."

     Nab-chan looked as confused as Ranko felt.

     "You soak fruitcake in brandy, just before you eat it, that's the only way most are palatable," Raccoon explained, "Captain K probably used whatever was handy."

     Ranko nodded, Nab-chan just looked more sour.

     Asuka heard the apartment's front door open, she'd woken early, when the rain had started, and realized Misato hadn't come home.  The first clue Asuka had that something was amiss, was the smell, wet wool and vomit, as if Misato had barfed on a sheep and dragged it home through the rain.  A moment later, she heard Misato singing, at the top of her lungs.  Asuka came out of her room, and saw Raccoon had been carrying Misato piggyback, she was now kicking her legs in time with the song, and leaning back so far he could barely keep his balance.  Pen Pen was staring at the whole scene.

     Asuka shook her head and wondered if Misato realized how ribald that particular German drinking song was.  As she got close enough to help Raccoon get their commanding officer into the bathroom, Misato leaned over and grabbed Asuka, giving a surprisingly passionate kiss.  Asuka had tasted some disgusting things before coming to NERV, she firmly believed nothing would ever match L.C.L., now she knew differently.  Well, that explains the smell, Asuka managed to get her lips away from Misato's, as the Captain burst into tears, She's been drinking fermented goat carcasses.

     The two of them managed to carry the sobbing, apologizing Misato into the bathroom.

     So that's what Spineless would sound like drunk, Asuka thought, "I won't ask where she's been, my nose works," she helped him get her into the shower, both had to fend out kisses and hugs from their semiconscious, and again amorous lord and master, before she started heaving again.  Misato managed to bring up the rest of the alcohol and whatever else was in her stomach as the water swirled it down the drain.

     "Where did you find her?" Asuka stayed out of range, in case her unconsciousness was feigned, she would have rinsed her mouth out with L.C.L.  right now.

     "I found my Nineveh in an alley between here and the base, on my way back from Sunday Services, if you can believe that.  I think He's plotting against me."

     Asuka chuckled at that.

     He accepted the washcloths she handed him, "She barfed all over my jacket, after she called me Kaji."

     "KAJI!" Misato lunged at both of them, they caught her as she passed out.

     The two managed to get her back into the shower without breaking Misato or themselves.

     "Can you finish up here?" Raccoon asked her.

     "Yeah, I guess," Asuka considered calling Spineless in, to get rid of his skittishness and reverence of the Great Captain of NERV, she decided against it, she didn't think he'd help.

     "Yeah, I'll take care of her.  No, I don't mean I'll drown her!  Nineveh, that's about right, you go home and get cleaned up.  You have that test today."

     She waited for Raccoon to tip his had and leave, she glanced at Pen Pen who was watching her take off Misato's filthy, sodden clothes, "Sometimes I wish one of us would have the guts to just let her destroy herself, before she destroys us."  Pen Pen left.

     How low does a person have to fall before they start doing this to themselves? Asuka wondered.

     Ranko wandered the rocky terrain, `Rei` had appeared, 3 meters tall, in full armor, and directed him to the location of 'the panda and his wife.'  She wasn't happy, having to depend on Rei, her superego, she always felt Rei was laughing at her.

     The smell wasn't burning piss, but it was chemical, and equally unpleasant.  Rather than remarking on the horrible smell, Ranko crawled toward them, slipping from cover to cover.  The part she most hated about being naked here, was the scratches and minor cuts from the plants and the rocks, she wondered if it were a metaphor for some meta.  Here, she was skinning her knees, and the palms of her hands, and she didn't dare cry out, or she'd alert her quarry.  She also hated having to find and cleanse every wound when she was finished, or they'd get infected.

     She watched as the panda seemed to be stitching the various Ranma pieces back into a coherent whole, while the woman picked up huge black rocks out of the otherwise brown or tan ground.  The woman would struggle under the weight of the rock, until she got it above the rim of the cauldron, then she dropped them in with a splash.  The evil smelling vapors would intensify for a time.

     Ranko wanted to shake her head at the misplaced use of the labor.  The woman struggled with weight that would be child's play for the panda, and the panda's crude stitching made Ranko wince, Why don't they switch jobs.  She also noticed that her `mother` looked more like Asuka's description than Raccoon's, indicating that 'icon' was his mother, or supposed to represent her.

     As the stitching was finished, the pair set up a pole, then they nailed the empty Ranma-skin to the pole.  Ranko winced at the thought of someone driving a spike right through Ranma's forehead.  They dipped into the cauldron, and smeared the thick petroleum-smelling gunk all over the stitches.  Ranko realized they were using tar, they'd tanned the fragments, stitched them together.  Very badly, she added.  Then smeared the stitches with tar, then they poured more tar though the Ranma-skin's mouth, and worked it around inside.  Ranko hadn't the faintest idea what they were trying to accomplish, except burning themselves with hot tar.

     Ranko watched their antics for several minutes, before she got the bright idea that, while they were running around and wailing at their burnt fingers, she could rush down and steal the skin.

     Then she wondered what she was going to do with it, that stopped her.  She could either carry it, or put it on.  The latter appealed to her, but she suspected then she'd be facing both of these creatures, and she'd lost against one of them already.  She knew she'd never best two of them.

     Then she discarded her impasse, she dashed down to the pole, uprooted it and levered the pot over, as the pair started towards her, she got the skin loose from the pole and ran away with the skin under one arm, and the pole under the other.

     Ranko had been running for some time, changing direction at random to keep the panda from catching her, the woman was far behind.  They were approaching a small crevasse in the rock, too far for her or the panda to leap across, but not pole vault.

     Before she reached it, the panda tackled her.  She instantly realized she was in serious trouble from where the panda grabbed her, and that it didn't continue the fight once it had her pinned.

     Oh no!  Not this! she threw every trick she knew at the panda, to get loose, Nothing works!? she knew all of this was literally all in her head, but that wouldn't make the pain or the shame any less real.  Shame because it happened to me, and shame that I'm capable of doing it, even to myself.  And this monster wins, breaks me, maybe controls me? that horrified her, she didn't think that even the monsters would do this to their own kind, but maybe this was proof they would, and then she or he would.  NO!  I've got one trick you can't counter!  Ranma Saotome was the master of Marital Arts, and could learn and adapt to win any combat situation.

     "HELP!  Nab-chan!  Rit-chan!  Raccoon!  Asuka!  Anybody!" Ranko shouted, not screamed, at the top of her lungs.

     The panda flipped her onto her back, "Crying little girl, I'll show you what crying, little girls are for, I'll give you a reason to cry!"

     After I kick you right where it counts, as hard as I can? Ranko kept her face a mask of fear to mislead her opponent.

     It was dark brown, and about the size of a shoe box.

     It hit the panda squarely in the side, and burst out the opposite size, taking the nearly separated panda away so quickly, Ranko could scarcely believe it.  A moment later, there was a noise so loud, it came as a wave of dust driven from the ground.  Ranko couldn't believe her ears were still attached, let alone working after that.

     She made out Raccoon's voice, strangely distorted and amplified, "I'd move, if I were you!"

     She glanced where the voice had come from.  It was a standard, mud-colored, Army artillery gun, with an 8-wheeled carriage.  Raccoon had his head in the bullet-loading end of the barrel, using the barrel as a megaphone.  Rei was standing impatiently behind him, with two bullets nearly as big as she was, balanced one on each shoulder.

     As soon as Raccoon pulled his head away, Rei flipped one of the bullets into the gun and fired.  The noise was deafening, the explosion that turned the panda into smoldering fragments was even louder.

     Stunned by the arrival, and the physically loud noises, Ranko couldn't even stagger to her feet.

     "Hold fire!  No more H.E.!" Raccoon ordered, from Rei's expression, he was about to have a mutiny on his hands.  "Six rounds, rapid fire, incendiary," he told her.

     Rei dashed off so quickly she left the remaining shell spinning in the air.  Raccoon pushed it to the ground, and ran towards Ranko.

     "What in God's Holy Name possessed you to make her such a gun-bunny?" Raccoon unceremoniously scooped Ranko up and ran to get out of the line of fire, as Rei returned with the pile of six shells in her arms, then proceeded to fire every one of them right into where the panda had been.  The heat of the impact surprised Ranko, she firmly believed there wouldn't even be dust or grease left of him after that barrage.

     "Nine shots?  She was only carrying six bullets!" Ranko was embarrassed how she had snuggled into Raccoon's arms as he ran, "Wait a second!  You said you couldn't come in here!?"

     "That's true, this is all your mind," Raccoon set her down, handed her a red silk dress.  It fit like a second skin, but at least she wasn't naked anymore.

     "So, if you can't be here, what are you doing here?"

     "Only who you are is here.  Rei-san!  Would you knock it off?!!" Raccoon yelled at the other girl as she arrived with another load.

     Rei threw the pile of artillery bullets she carried to the ground, and stared petulantly at both of them.

     "I'm glad somebody told you those can't go off until they're fired."

     "Wait, I've got it!" Ranko shouted, "You aren't really here.  You're who I think you are!"

     "She isn't as stupid a bimbo as she looks," Rei commented, then turned around and walked off.

     "I think Miss Ayanami is a little out of character, or you've managed to make her extremely mad, every time you've talked with her."

     "She's never knocked you off a building for asking a question before," Ranko replied.

     "Don't bet on it," Raccoon said exactly what Ranko expected he'd say.

     "Why was it you two who rescued me?" Ranko asked.

     "You know the answer," Raccoon told her.

     "You two kill, and aren't concerned about whom or what."

     "That's your opinion," Raccoon said, as he turned to walk away, then he vanished.

     "Now I know I'm crazy," Ranko glanced down and noted the dress had vanished along with Raccoon and Rei, "AW!  Give me a break!"

May 25, 1947


     Ranma bounced from foot to foot, practiced a few of his superfast punches.  He knew he had them, it was a dumb test, but the Doctor gave him lots of dumb tests.  They were out on the NERV outdoor rifle range, nobody except the test team was in view.  Ranma glanced up, the sun was high, it wouldn't be a problem with glare or shadows.  All careful thought and special preparation, for a dumb test.

     "What point do you have the greatest speed and accuracy?" Raccoon asked from 30 feet away.

     Ranma tried a few punches, then held his hand out, "Right here."

     "Okay, I'll place my shots right through where your palm is."  Raccoon set his pistol on the table while Rit-chan loaded the clips with special ammunition.

     He was standing perpendicular to Raccoon, so he could reach out and pluck the bullets from their flight path, as they passed in front.  Nab-chan, Misa-chan, Gendo, even Kaji had given him a hard time about almost getting shot.  Hey, I wasn't expecting a little girl-looking `hostage` to be a danger, he thought defensively, Next time, I'll know better.

     "Ready when you are," Raccoon called, set and aimed his pistol.

     "Ready!" he shouted back.  The gun went off.

     "That was fast, I didn't see anything," Raccoon said.

     Neither did I, Ranma thought, "Ready when you are."

     Raccoon fired again.



     Nothing.  "Again."











     "It's empty, let me reload.  How many did you catch?"

     "None," Ranma replied, "I'm just warming up."

     "Okay, seven more shots.  When you're ready."

     Ranma called for the seven shots, he didn't see anything, didn't react.

     "Do you need to change position, give you a better view of the bullets, or have Davis fire at a steady rate?" Ritsuko asked.

     Ranma nodded, turned slightly so he could better see Raccoon, "Fire steadily" he told them.

     Raccoon fired off seven shots, at a slow, steady pace.


     "Okay, Saotome-san, at least tell me what color the bullets are.  The ammunition is very specific," Raccoon said.

     Ranma shook his head, "I didn't see anything."  He was worried, he could catch anything he could see.  He could see where Raccoon was aiming, touch the point where the bullets would go, but nothing he saw went through it.

     "Well, Doctor, should we go onto the next step?" Raccoon asked, Ritsuko nodded.

     Two armorers brought out a piece of wall on a wheeled, rail stand, a human figure, Ranma-sized, drawn on it.

     "Step up to it, Ranma," Ritsuko ordered.

     Ranma did, and lined up with the outline.  One of the armorers slipped a pair of goggles over his eyes.

     "Don't move, just watch," Ritsuko ordered.

     Raccoon closed to 15 feet, "Ready?"

     Ranma nodded.

     Raccoon aimed carefully and fired, the plaster from outside the outline near his left ear showered Ranma.  "Are you all right Saotome-san?" Raccoon asked.

     "Yes." Ranma was shaken, but he wanted to prove his point.

     "What color was the bullet?" Raccoon asked.

     Ranma shook his head.

     Raccoon turned to Ritsuko, "Let's stop this."

     Ritsuko shook her head, "We have to complete the test."  Ranma agreed.

     Raccoon nodded.

     Right ear, right hip, left hip, left shoulder, right shoulder.  In frustration, Raccoon put the last one between Ranma's legs.

     Ranma gulped at that, while Raccoon returned the pistol to the table, removed the clip and left it locked open, empty.

     "Thank you, Ranma, the test is over.  You never saw any of the bullets, did you?" Ritsuko asked.

     Ranma shook his head.

     "You couldn't detect the flight path, could you?" she asked.

     Again he shook his head.  He was very shaken.  He prayed they wouldn't ask to run the test again with Ranko.

     "Saotome," Raccoon walked up to lead him away from the target, "That pistol fires a large bullet at subsonic speed.  So technically, the bullets are slower than your punches, and you couldn't see them coming.  What are you going to do if a man, or girl, has a rifle, say behind you, at 700 to 1500 meters?  That means the bullet will hit, then you'll hear the supersonic whip crack, then you'll hear the sound of it being fired."

     Raccoon showed him what looked like a gun barrel, "This is what caused the stories of samurai and martial artists beating gunmen.  I pull this, take a fuse or a hot wire," he mimed the actions, "Put it here, then there is a delay before it fires.  I fired a flintlock once, a more advanced weapon, I pulled the trigger and two seconds later, the gun fired.  A loud poof, then a delay, even Shinji could dodge or take the gun away with a two-second delay."

     Ranma nodded, badly flustered.

     "So don't take so many chances," Raccoon told him gently, patted his shoulder, "Traditions are fine things, as long as you understand where they come from.  And when they don't apply anymore."

     "But you do!" Ranma shouted back.

     "My coats' linings, are basically two bomber flak jackets.  Why do you think they're so heavy?" Raccoon replied, smiling.

     "oh."  Ranma hadn't considered that, from Doctor Akagi's expression, neither had she.  "Okay, I get the message." Ranma turned to examine the holes in the wallboard.  He gulped, Raccoon's marksmanship was impressive, and terrifying.  A flinch, by either of them, would have been fatal.  "I'd like to be alone for a while."

     "Well, we have to clean up here," Ritsuko told him, "But no one else is using the range."

     "No one will bother you," one of the armorers assured him.

     Ranma nodded and walked across the flat field to the pits behind the targets, to think about things, to consider the lessons he'd learned.

     Ritsuko helped break up the wallboard to prevent Ranma from finding the wires or the residue from the squibs concealed within.  "Do you want the ammunition back?"

     "No!  I'd have to hide it somewhere," Davis replied.

     "Do you think he learned his lesson?"

     "I believe so, he only thinks about things after a loss.  He lost his belief in his invulnerability, now he has to reconstruct who he knows he is, and what he can do.  I spent several months in traction reminding myself I wasn't as good a horseman as I thought.  Let him alone for a while, then go out and sit with him, he'll work through it.  His senses reported something he doesn't want to deal with, now he has to work through it."

     Ritsuko accepted this, she'd researched it before setting this up.  It should work.

     Ranma watched Nab-chan's slap lift Raccoon clear of the dining room chair, and threw him to the floor a few feet away.

     Nab-chan advanced, "What the HELL did you think you were doing?" she screamed as he rolled out of easy reach.  Ranma stood up and moved to interpose himself between them.

     "I'm fine Nab-chan," he assured her, grabbing her shoulders when she tried to push past him.

     "He needed to learn there are some threats martial arts just won't solve," Raccoon told her as he struggled to his knees.

     "So you shot him!" she tried to wrestle loose of Ranma's grip.

     "Shot at me."  Ranma had her in a bear hug now, lifting her off the ground to prevent mayhem against a helpless target.

     "In an extremely carefully administered and monitored condition," he told her coldly, "We took every precaution to prevent injury, but the danger had to be understood."

     "Let me GO Saotome!" Nab-chan struggled but couldn't escape Ranma's grip.

     "No!  Raccoon, you'd better run for it."

     "You stand there so sanctimonious, and put him at risk!" she screamed, tripped Ranma and struggled to get loose.

     "Because not doing it, would put him at greater risk later."  Raccoon pulled his boots on and quickly left.

     Ranma was tremendously enjoying the fight.  Nab-chan made up for her lesser skill by being real sneaky.  They didn't hit or kick each other, but that didn't eliminate trips, leg sweeps, holds and evasions.  Ranma had finally got a secure enough grip on Nab-chan's wrists, pressing one against the other so she couldn't escape without breaking her wrist or arms.  He had her leg trapped between his calf and thigh, she wasn't going anywhere.

     "What are you going to do now, Saotome?" Nab-chan asked bitterly, "Tranquilize me?  You've heard the way they talk, I've heard it about Ranko too.  'All she needs to calm her down . . . '.  Well, I can't stop you.  Can I?"

     He got angry, he'd heard the comments, about her, about Ranko and about Asuka, he was about to protest his innocence, when she suddenly leaned back.  He had to abandon the wristlock as they toppled over, or he'd hurt her, something, he did not want to do.  He still held one of her wrists, and shoved her feet out from under her, so she fell, rather than escaped.

     Sneaky, he caught her other hand, he hadn't been paying attention to how close they had gotten during the fight, he'd been enjoying the martial arts contest, Then she'd pointed it out.

     He was very much aware of it as she tried to writhe lose, as she lay on top of him.  Time to turn the tables on her, he thought, "You could just kick me."

     Nab-chan blushed as she glanced down to see where her knee was, what it was threatening, realizing what she was doing.

     "Kick me hard enough, and I won't be able to follow you.  Why don't you do it?  After all, I'm standing in your way."  He released her and pushed her off him, and then pulled her to her feet as he stood up.

     "In fact," he released her, "Go ahead, go hurt him.  Go beat him bloody for what he did.  Go kill him for saving my life and trying to teach me something."  He could see the emotions warring under the miffed facade.

     Nab-chan seemed mad at the whole world most of the time, now, uncertainty was undermining it.

     "He shot you!" Nab-chan shouted.

     "Shot AT me," Ranma replied, trying to keep his voice and body language icily calm, he mostly succeeded.

     "I saw him shoot things, shoot to kill.  If he wanted me hurt, or dead, I'd be hurt or dead, but I'm not.  I never thought about guns, I figured they were just like any other weapon.  Now I know they aren't."

     Ranma took a deep breath, to steady himself and to let Nab-chan reply.  All she did was look chagrined.

     "Look, I know you don't want me hurt.  Right?"

     "Yes," Nab-chan said in a small voice.

     "Did it ever occur to you that maybe he doesn't either?" Ranma asked, it was clear she hadn't.  "You haven't seen him shoot, I have.  As scary as it was, I was as safe as I could be, considering."

     She sighed, looked almost ready to cry.

     He stepped up to her, "I'm as much to blame as anyone.  I knew it was coming, I could have refused or walked out, at any time.  If you have to hit someone.  Hit me."

     She looked shocked, turned around, facing away.

     He laid a hand on her shoulder, "I, I think I understand.  But you can't protect me from everything.  Rit-chan and Raccoon decided I had to learn I can't protect me from everything.  I'm scared, scared that now I can't face everything and anything, and beat it in a fight.  I can be the very best, and still lose, still get killed."

     He turned her to face him, saw how sad and conflicted she looked, he also decided he could learn something `from Ranko`: be a little less serious, "Besides," he said in a child's voice, "Wittle Ramna, don't wan' mommy daddy fight, nooo more."

     Her anger returned, but it wasn't the fury she'd displayed earlier.  "OH!  You're getting a spanking for that!"  She charged.

     Ranma dodged, and ran for the patio.  He'd climb to the roof, he wasn't sure if she'd chase him or not.

     Shinji lay on his bed, he was thinking that his and Rei's plan had backfired.  Asuka had been initially pleased by the German food, then she'd slipped into melancholy.  She's acting more like you, he considered.

     At the moment, she was sitting in her room, as she'd done for the last few days, listening to the same sad songs, over and over.  She came out only to eat, go to school, or do her chores, then she locked herself in her room.

     He almost wished that she would yell at him, go back to the Asuka he knew.  Normally, he could expect an explosion at any moment, now he was worried he'd never see one again.  Only Pen Pen was staying with her, during her seeming exile.  She didn't seem to mind his presence.


     Shinji peaked out from under his bed, quietly wondering how he'd flipped it over on top of himself.

     "SPINELESS!!" Asuka yanked open his door and yelled.  She flipped the bed off him with one hand, as she hauled him to his feet with the other.

     Scary, Shinji thought.

     "Get cleaned up," she half-dragged, half-carried him to the bathroom, "Then dress up, we're going to dinner.  Call Wondergirl, you two are going dancing, I want to see dancing."  She closed the door after he was inside.

     He looked around the bathroom, wondering what to do next.

     "What are you waiting for?!" Asuka opened the door and yelled at him.

     "Uh, clean clothes?" he managed.

     "Do I have to do everything?" a moment later she threw clean underwear and a set of dress slacks at him.

     He glanced at the clothes, hanging up the slacks, "All will make merry," Shinji muttered, "Under penalty of Death."

     "I HEARD THAT!" Asuka shouted back, "What are YOU staring at?"

     "I didn't know I was," Shinji said.

     "If you want fish!  Just tell me!  I'll bury you in fish!" Asuka shouted.

     Shinji devoutly hoped she was talking to Pen Pen.

     It was raining again.  A gentle shower, rather than the downpour of Monday morning.  Jeff's cheek still ached where Nabiki-san had hit it.  That girl doesn't know her own strength.

     He didn't have his umbrella.  The rain gave him some practice with his AT field, keeping himself dry.  He hoped Nabiki-san would calm down by school tomorrow.  He almost wished it wasn't raining, Pen Pen had shown him a trick he wanted to try out on the Cthonians that plagued Ayanami-san.  So incredibly easy, I'm surprised anyone hadn't thought of it before, he considered.

     He headed towards the school, it would be dry there, and it would let his `minders` to get out of the rain too.

No Good Deed . . .

     Ritsuko felt Nabiki's gaze on her as she drove the jeep through the rain.  The canvas top kept them dry, that made Ritsuko think of Maya and Ranma in the other jeep.

     Occasionally checking in with Security, allowed them to vector in on their wanderer.

     "Sometimes I don't know what goes through your head," Ritsuko said angrily, "Do you really believe I would be so careless?  That I'd put Ranma in that kind of danger?  Do you really think so little of me?  Do you believe we sat in my office and shouted 'Die Ranma!', what kind of an idiot do you take me for?"

     She saw Nabiki's stunned expression, "I expect an answer."

     "I'm sorry," Nabiki managed.

     Ritsuko wondered why Security hadn't been able to simply pick Jeff up, but he seemed able to evade any large concentration of troops, staying in sight, but out of reach.

     She honestly wondered what she was going to do when she caught up with him, considering he was hiding from her passenger, he might feel safer out in the rain.

     "You're going to have to learn that other people do things beyond your control," Ritsuko reminded her, and nearly drove off the road when Nabiki mumbled 'Yes, Mother.'  She hoped Nabiki was just being a smart-alec, and she was not sure which possibility she preferred.

     Maya peered into the darkness the jeep's headlights barely dispelled.  She wasn't going to ask why Ranma had become Ranko for the search, the interior of the jeep would stay dry.  Although it alarmed Maya, but not Sempai, which Maya didn't understand.

     "You know, Shinji disappeared that first time," Maya was trying to keep the situation light, and not succeeding, "Misato has claimed he ran away a few more times, but Asuka-chan claims he was just hiding on the roof, or went to visit Ayanami-san.  Do you think Raccoon is doing that?"

     "No," Ranko told her, as she shifted in the seat, as if she was watching things that Maya couldn't see, "He wouldn't go there, I was on the roof, and Rei's place is hers and Shinji's.  To intrude, 'Just isn't done.'"

     It shook Maya that Ranko duplicated the pronunciation and tone of Raccoon's phrase, as if the boy were here and said it himself.  Maya considered the intensity with which the redhead was searching.  "I'm sure he's all right."

     "It's not him I'm worried about," Ranko said.

     "Nabiki?" Maya was worried.

     "No.  Something lured us out, and tried to capture or kill us.  Maybe the same as what mortared our picnic and killed Nancy.  That's, what I'm worried about."

     Maya remembered the days of hiding, after that attack.

     "Two plus two, two times two, two to the second power.  I finally figured out that the reason they're all the same, is they're just different ways of saying the same thing.  This is the same.  Like doing a kata with one hand, then the other, it's different, but it's the same too.  The mortar attack, the cloud of bugs, the cultist with the knife, the little girl Raccoon had to shoot twice, it's all the same, all a . . . like the pictures of a building to be built."

     "A blueprint," Maya said, she couldn't see where this was going.

     "Yeah.  The building is 'isolate the pilots', no matter how they did it, that's what it had in common, isolate the pilot.  But isolate us from the outside, or from each other?" Ranko said in a dreamy voice, as if it was just occurring to her as she said it.  "The bug didn't fire until Rei dropped on it, it was waiting, the knife man was released to attack when two pilots got close.  They knew I'd go try to rescue the little girl, but who was the target?  Me, Raccoon, whoever?"  Ranko fell silent as she moved around, watching, searching.

     Maya didn't like the implications of what Ranko was saying.  She had to admit, after all the strain in trying to teach Ranma, she hadn't expected Ranma to do any deep thinking.  "So you think that now that he's isolated, they'll go after him?  How would they know he's alone?"

     "They'd know.  That's the pattern," Ranko said.

     "And you're worried?" Maya asked.

     Ranko just looked pensive.

     Shinji watched Asuka and Rei-chan talking, whatever Asuka had been talking about, Shinji had lost the thread in a few minutes.  Rei-chan had asked a few, but extremely probing questions.  He knew that, because Asuka would pause, talk to herself in rapid-fire German, before answering Rei-chan.  Asuka didn't seem to mind explaining even the minutia of what she had discovered.

     Asuka never once insulted him for his silence, or Rei-chan for not understanding, occasionally she'd mumble something in German, he recognized that, but since he knew most of Asuka's German insults, he would have recognized those sprinkled in her speech.  She wasn't using them.  Then she either moved on, or tried to explain it again.

     He'd never seen her like this, manic almost.  Rei-chan understood what Asuka was describing, at least partially.  He wondered if he could get a translation later.

     "Spineless," Asuka said sternly, but happily, "If you're done picking at the remains of your food, you and Wondergirl are going dancing."

     Shinji nearly panicked, Rei-chan wasn't far behind him.

     "Relax, I'll teach you, I calculated you didn't know," she laughed at that, "There's only two steps you really need, the point of dancing is to enjoy the person you're dancing with," she peered furiously at both of them, "You two can manage that, can't you?!"

     "Yes," Rei-chan said.

     Shinji gulped and nodded, he really wished Asuka would go back to normal, the `new` Asuka was different, friendlier, but he didn't think it was all an improvement.

     Asuka dragged both of them onto the dance floor, posed them, then moved them like stop motion figures, until they could go through the steps themselves.  Asuka stayed nearby, emphasizing the beat and correcting missteps.

     Shinji enjoyed the dancing with Rei-chan, but he wasn't sure he wanted Asuka standing close, calling cadence and giving constructive criticism.

     "Do you know what she's so happy about?" Shinji asked Rei-chan, while Asuka was off getting all three of them some lemonade.

     "She believes she has made a breakthrough on the AT field.  It may also solve the Grand Unified Theory, the solution to all matter and energy being related," Rei-chan told him.

     Shinji had no real idea what that mean, "This is important?"

     "Very," Rei-chan told him.

     He trusted Rei-chan, if she thought it was important, and Asuka clearly thought so too, Shinji would just trust them.

     "Something's wrong here," Jeff felt the presence of something, but he couldn't find it, as he quartered the school yard.  None of his tricks had detected anything, except the guards.  It was like a foul smell you couldn't locate, no matter how many times you went through the area, it stayed equally strong, or equally faint.

     He paused, glanced at the `watch towers`, nearby buildings that could see over the school walls and trees down into the entire campus.  He saw faces, the occasional indication of movement, to verify they were manned.  Whatever was out there, was either weak and everywhere, or very strong, and a long way off.  It was different from the atmosphere around Ayanami-san's apartment.

     He shook his head, he'd have to report this, fortunately Security was close at hand, and he'd had to worry about Nabiki for the rest of the night.  He doubted she'd have calmed down much, and he wasn't looking forward to going another couple of rounds with her, physically or verbally.

     Ritsuko was headed for the med center, she wanted to check the damage.  The purple bruise practically had Nabiki's fingerprints.  Maya was taking Nabiki and Ranma back to the apartment.

     "You expected this," she accused, "Or something like it."

     "I was hoping for something like this.  Although I would have preferred getting yelled at."

     "The Angels aren't going to get you," Ritsuko concentrated on the road, "Your own side will."

     "I already knew that," Jeff stared out the window at the city racing by.

     "If I had known this would happen," Ritsuko said, "I would never have agreed to this."

     "You'd have stood by, and possibly let Saotome get hurt?  Who's kidding whom, Doctor?"

     She frowned but didn't answer.

     "If Saotome's parents, his real parents, arrived and decided to pull him out of NERV, to judge whether he was a `real man`, or something not worthy of continuing, what would you do?"

     "That's too hypothetical," Ritsuko replied.

     "Okay.  His fear of cats, his rotten socialization, lack of learning, the physical traumas you've detected.  If his parents arrived, and you discovered they inflicted all that on him, and they objected to the treatment he'd received at your hands?"

     Ritsuko tightened her grip on the steering wheel as Jeff spoke, she could too easily imagine parents heaping that kind of cruelty on a child.  Her own `upbringing` had been almost as nightmarish, and she still competed in her own mind with her mother's accomplishments.  'If I'm good enough, maybe mommy will love me.'  She relaxed her grip before she damaged herself or the steering wheel, she wondered if her fumbling attempts to provide a good, decent home for `her kids` was the one arena she knew she could best her mother, her memory and her ghost.  "I don't know what I'd do."

     "Let's simplify the question, would you surrender him to them?  Knowing he'd leave NERV and be seriously injured as a result?"

     "Of course not!"

     "Then what makes you think I would?" Jeff retorted, turning to face her, he touched his cheek, ignoring the pain, "This is nothing, it will heal.  Living with the knowledge I could have acted, and failed to, that would damage me for the rest of my life."

     Ritsuko had to agree, she had enough regrets.

     They arrived back at the apartment.  Ritsuko was satisfied there were no broken bones or other extreme trauma, but she expected the bruise would be particularly ugly and painful for a few days.

     She was surprised that Maya, Nabiki and Ranma, in his female form, were waiting for them.

     I'm' going to have to start paying more attention to Maya's warnings, she thought, she'd worried about Nabiki and Ranma.  Now she was also going to have to worry about Ranko and Jeff.

     Nabiki was looking chagrined, Ranma kept shooting Nabiki unreadable looks, not anger or hatred, almost expectation and disappointment, but perhaps warning as well, she couldn't tell.

     "I'm fine, I'd like to get a change and a shower, and some sleep, in that order," Jeff broke the logjam.

     "Does it hurt?" Ranma asked.

     "No, I've been wet before."

     Ranma frowned, "That isn't what I meant."

     "Answering the question you asked, would serve no ones interests," Jeff told her as he slipped past.

     Nabiki seemed to wither as she became the focus of attention.  But before she could say anything.

     "I've forgiven Miss Tendo.  I consider the subject closed."  Jeff dumped a pile of bedding on the couch and left.

     "He may consider the subject closed," Ritsuko said, "But I am curious how a martial artist, can have so little self-control.  You could have demanded answers or explanations, even an apology, before you attacked."

     "I'm sorry," Nabiki said.

     "I don't care if you're sorry, I want to know when or if you're going to do it again," Ritsuko said, "And it isn't me or Ranma you have to apologize to."

     "Yes, I know," Nabiki said.

     Ritsuko could tell Nabiki's unease wasn't due to getting caught, but she wasn't sure if it was due to her loss of control, her having to apologize, or both.

     "It won't happen again.  I'll try to find out, before I act," Nabiki admitted quietly, "I . . . I just got so angry, I couldn't see straight."

     "You might want to examine why you came to the conclusion you did," Maya said gently, "And decide if the thinking was valid."

     Nabiki nodded.

     "That doesn't excuse you from making that apology," Maya said sternly.

     Nabiki winced at the sudden change.  No one spoke, all waiting for the others.

     The sound of the shower starting broke the awkward silence.

     Nabiki glanced at Ranma, "Are you going to add anything?"

     "You mean am I going to dump on you too?" Ranma asked, "No, I think you're doing a better job than I could."

     That got Ranma a frown from Nabiki, she returned a smirk.

     "Have you decided what to say?" Ritsuko asked Nabiki.

     "No, not yet, maybe if I write one in the morning," Nabiki offered, she appeared ready to say more, then decided against it.

     Ritsuko suspected she'd get no answers tonight, all of them were tired, and it was a school day tomorrow, "All right, get ready for bed.  I'll hold you to your promise."

     Nabiki nodded and left, Ritsuko looked from Ranma's female form to Maya, she wondered what she was going to do, "All right, Maya, you get ready too.  Ranma, wait for them to finish, then I expect you to get to bed as well."

     "Yes, Doctor."

     "Yes, Sempai."  Maya left.

     "Is he really all right?" Ranma asked.

     "Physically he's fine," Ritsuko sighed, "What other effects this will have . . . " Ritsuko sighed and shrugged.

     Nabiki poured another bucket of cold water over her head, partially as penance, partially to clear her head, "I'm getting as bad as Akane at her worst."  She just couldn't see any other reason for what Raccoon and Doctor Akagi had done, except to hurt Ranma.  The thought had proceeded logically, along well-worn paths, after all, everybody who wasn't trying to marry Ranma, wanted to hurt him, and most of the ones trying to marry him, beat him up too.

     Except that doesn't work here, Nabiki literally had not been able to imagine any other possibility.  It was a fact of life, people beat up Ranma, and the poor, caring fool still tried to be nice to them.

     "Is he that desperate for friends, lovers, any connection, that he'd do anything to keep the association?" she asked, "Am I so insecure that I automatically assume the worst of everyone?"

     "No," Maya told her, Nabiki hadn't heard her enter, she was wrapped in a towel.

     "I was a little shocked when I heard about the test, but I had to trust Sempai knew what she was doing," Maya admitted as she set her towel aside and began her ablutions.

     Nabiki blushed at being naked physically and emotionally, again.

     "Were you trying to keep Ranko away from Raccoon, or were you trying to protect Ranma from a real threat?"

     Nabiki considered, "I guess I am a little jealous of how Raccoon and Ranko carry on, Hiroko and Raccoon called him morose, and both of us have been.  I am jealous of the fun those two seem to have together, even when they're frustrating each other, they both smile so much.  I'm also trying to protect Ranma from a threat, it's like he doesn't see any danger as real."

     "He does, believe me.  Boys don't like to let on that they're scared.  I bet you didn't know that Raccoon did get shot when he and Ranma went to rescue that girl-thing.  It bounced off that medical kit he carries, he's got a huge bruise on the side, to match the one you gave him."

     Nabiki considered if committing seppuku with a bath bucket was possible.  "I didn't know."  She angrily added, "I didn't think."

     Maya hugged her, "We've all been under unbelievable strain, but there are people you can trust."  She released Nabiki, "And amazingly, some of us actually can answer questions.  Maybe you should try asking them."

     Nabiki nodded, she still felt miserable, at least she had the basis of her apology.  I hate apologizing.

     Ranma as Ranko stared at the ceiling, the whole week had been bothering him.  Maya slept soundly in his usual bunk, he was sleeping in Raccoon's.  This whole week had been terrifying, for all he'd learned, all his martial arts and other learning, he could be swept along like a leaf by the winds of fate.

     He'd lost the last vestige of belief in his own invulnerability, in the long run, that was a good thing, but it still hurt.  He knew that at least two of his roommates could kill, given the right circumstances.  The fight between Nab-chan and Raccoon would have escalated into a fight to the death, if he hadn't intervened.  Of the five people in the apartment, the only one he was sure couldn't kill anyone, was Maya, he was no longer certain he could never kill someone.  That was disturbing, in a way he'd lost part of his innocence.

     The third thing that bothered him was the fight, Nab-chan and Raccoon had fought over - him.  Not to possess him, as a boyfriend or girlfriend, although he'd had a few short nightmares about Nab-chan demanding Ranma and Raccoon demanding Ranko, in those, he wasn't sure being chopped in half with a sword was worse than the other ways they `shared` him and her.  However, that wasn't it, they were arguing about how best to help him.  Nab-chan preferred exposing him to a little embarrassment or ridicule, several times, letting him stew in between, to make sure he got the lesson straight, Raccoon did it all in one dose, and then gently eased the pain of revelation, gave the reasons.  It was like the difference between taking medicine, or getting vaccinated, both worked, although Ranma wished both of them would find a better way.  He kept coming back to the point that the two of them were trying to protect him.  He couldn't understand that, Raccoon both hated and feared him, Nab-chan seemed to both love him and despise him, why were they both so concerned about the danger he was in?

     He didn't know how parents were supposed to act, except generally, he hoped the things in his mind weren't typical, he hoped Rit-chan was.  That was the core and heart of it, Nab-chan and Raccoon were acting towards each other, more like the parents in his nightmares probably acted.  He had to figure out how to tell them neither was wrong, they were just different.  Raccoon's method was faster, Nab-chan's less traumatic, but both of them had only used their method where it was appropriate.  Nab-chan and the cats, Raccoon with guns, and so on.

     "It doesn't feel right," he whispered, it didn't fit with the fragments he had, but it felt good . . . "If I can keep them from killing each other, or themselves with worry."  He wasn't sure he liked being `the kid`, but he liked people looking out for and looking after him.

     One other thing bothered him, he realized.  He leaned over, Maya was sound asleep, She wouldn't be saying 'Sempai' like that, if she were awake, he smiled as he watched her for a moment.  He leaned over to the closet, not wanting to risk the ladder and waking her, and glad her gymnastic ability and the heavy structure of the bed allowed this.  She opened the closet, and grabbed one of Raccoon's suit coats.  Then she wound up on the floor, I forgot how heavy these things are, she made sure Maya was still asleep, and no one was coming to check on the noise.  She extracted a pair of scissors from the sewing kit Maya had made him buy at the PX, and carefully snipped a few of the threads at the bottom of the coat, just enough to reach her hand in.  She felt the smooth, stiff material of the lining.  Her fingers were sensitive enough to tell her it was smooth, like glass or metal not like any kind of cloth.  Even the silk of her shirts wasn't this smooth.  Then she steeled herself and filled her hand with all the ki she could.  The material was burning cold!  She pulled her hand back, sucked on her `burnt` fingers, they still felt frostbitten, while her mouth reported they were warm.

     Definitely magic, Ranma thought, she waited until her hand was back to normal and then reached into the coat again. There's no way the shoulders could be made of that stuff, if Raccoon could move, he'd have to be stronger than a gorilla.  Ranma found a number of overlapping plates of the material protected the shoulder joints. It ain't solid, Ranma thought, So something else could worm through.

     Ranma selected a thread of matching color and sewed up the gap, So it's good protection, but it isn't perfect protection. Ranma sat back on her haunches after she'd put the coat back.  It didn't make any sense, either he hated and feared Ranma, or he'd put his life on the line to protect him, not both.  Ranma couldn't reconcile the two images, Rei was the same.  He got the impression that if any of the crazy rivals Raccoon and Asuka had described showed up, as long as they were insulting Ranma, or Ranko, they'd have a bunch of enthusiastic NERV helpers.  The minute they raised a hand against him or her, it would be a race to see if Raccoon turned them into lead mines, with Asuka reloading for him, or Rei chopped them into cutlets with her AT field, with Nab-chan taking bets on who got whom first.  Ranma actually felt sorry for the weirdoes.  It would be like walking into a new universe, with different rules.

     Ranma disarranged the coats and shirts, so Raccoon wouldn't instantly pick out which was out-of-place, and returned to bed, creeping up the ladder to avoid waking Maya.  She didn't get much sleep, thinking it all over again and again.  He wondered if he loved them, either of them, any of them, he didn't like to see them hurt, but he hadn't bothered to find out what they liked, what they needed.  What he or she could do, that they in fact wanted done. The last time I saw all of them happy, was when I started learning, he knew that wasn't the answer, And if I don't do it right, they'll just get mad.  He knew they kept their plans and schemes subtle, figuring it out what would help wasn't easy, and what would hurt.

     Kehl had never called the entire committee together before.  He had never needed to, before.  The darkness, lit only by the individual candles carried by the members, seemed to close in and choke him.  He knew it was probably the incense and the stench of burning animals, although the hideous masks of his fellow committee members, didn't help.  The heavy robes and evil masks disguised identity, gender, and if Kehl had been more imaginative, he would have added, species.

     They needed the full might of the committee to compel the being they had summoned.  The nattily dressed, dark-complected man regarded them with amusement.

     "Such a show of force.  No one simply asks anymore."

     "We serve the Gate and Key," Kehl intoned, the formula they had been given, "Aid us as we call upon you."

     The figure shrugged, "What do you wish of me?"

     Kehl wasn't the least hoodwinked by the mild manners.  The Crawling Chaos was not something to be trifled with.

     Shinji thought Asuka seemed overjoyed to see the others as the personnel carrier rolled up to pick up her and him.  She immediately seated herself next to Raccoon, the two began chattering excitedly to each other in German.  No one could get a question about his face in edgewise.

     Shinji glanced at Nabiki, who seemed both ashamed, and so intense, he thought dumping a bucket of water on her would result in a cloud of steam.  Rei and he sat alone together.  Ranma kept staring at Rei, Raccoon, then shaking his head with a smile.  Shinji was glad Asuka had found someone else to concentrate on.  He couldn't figure what had happened among the others.

     "They are discussing the equations," Rei told him as she took his hand.  Shinji nodded.

     Ranma seemed to respond to some signal, he duplicated Rei's gesture, taking Nabiki's hands.  Rather than the joy Shinji always felt, Nabiki looked so ashamed that he thought she would cry, but she didn't shake off Ranma's grip.

     Shinji was confused, he could hardly imagine why the brash and confident Ranma would need any guidance from him of all people.  Rei seemed to understand, she leaned against him, and Shinji put his arm around her shoulder.  Ranma waited a few moments, then duplicated the gesture.  Shinji didn't think Ranma was mocking them, it was if he were looking to them for guidance.

     Shinji discarded that thought, it would be as if one of their enemies approached their forces, and offered terms or alliance.

     Nabiki had felt the faint prickling of her pride all day.  Whenever anyone asked about the huge, purple bruise on Raccoon's face, he'd answered simply 'It was a firearms accident.'  Nobody believed that, Ranma continued to reply that the injury was due to a test of special ammunition, neither elaborated, not even to the other pilots.

     Despite the subterfuge, she heard the gossip, almost without exception they guessed the source of the mark.  No one spoke of it where they thought she could hear.

     Rei pointedly asked Raccoon why he hadn't used his theatrical make up to hide it, he merely shrugged.

     Every one of the glances, the non-comments, cut into her.  Hiroko was polite, bringing the reports, but couldn't keep her eyes off it.  Nabiki thought some strange light emanated from it, drawing every eye, and illuminating the guilty so all could see.

     Nabiki also thought endlessly of the unread piece of paper residing in Raccoon's coat pocket.  The apology she had written after she'd gotten up and done her morning practice.  The admission of guilt dreadfully embarrassed her, a humble petition for forgiveness.  Raccoon simply told her the matter was closed, last night he forgave her, he understood.  Then he placed the apology unread in his coat.  When Ritsuko asked if he was going to read it, he made it worse by saying he trusted her to do as Ritsuko had demanded, reading it was unnecessary.

     If they'd wanted to pick a pitiless way to punish me, Nabiki glanced around the lunch crowd, They could hardly have picked a better way.  She sighed, wished they would just hit her, yell at her, but there seemed to be an ironclad rule that it was not to be spoken of, or even acknowledge.

     She waited for the day to end, then realized that Search and Rescue training would follow.  She dreaded the questioning the men would subject her to.  She just wanted the day over with.

     "You're not diving with that," Captain Madison told Raccoon while Nabiki suited up, "You'll monitor the pumps and gas flow, you both need experience doing that.  In a few days, she'll watch over you."

     That's it then, Nabiki thought, she knew a dozen ways you could embarrass the Hell out of a diver without endangering them, And Captain Madison just put him in the perfect position to do it.  She resigned herself to whatever indignities she would suffer.  The lessons today would be just working on machinery, concentrating as the air pressure made you giddy, dealing with the limitations of moving and working in the new environment.

     Nabiki looked across the lab bench, she spread her homework on the lab table in Ritsuko-sensei's lab, a short distance away, Raccoon was doing his.  Both of them were waiting for Dr. Akagi to finish up her work, then they would pick up something to eat on the drive home.

     The silence was deafening.  Captain Madison's congratulations on her professionalism kept ringing in her head, she'd managed to keep her head and rescued another diver who suffered a severe equipment failure.  She thought she'd finally had the other shoe drop, and she could quit waiting.  Only when she'd surfaced and helped the `victim` to the decompression chamber, she learned it was a drill, and she'd passed with flying colors.  She'd done everything exactly as she'd been trained, never panicking and keeping the `victim` from exacerbating the problem.

     She looked around, she needed more paper, she couldn't bring herself to break the silence to ask for some, so she went looking for some in the cabinets of supplies.

     Her eyes fell on an almost empty box of .45 ammunition, not standard bullets, she pulled one out examined it, and then headed straight towards Raccoon with the box in hand.

     She slapped the box of ammunition down on the lab table, it burst, the bullets rolling over the edge and onto the floor, "Blanks!  You lied to me," Nabiki accused, "You told me Ranma was in danger.  There was never any danger, was there?"

     "When you slap me again, please use the other side, it should match," Raccoon never looked up from his work, the deep purple hand-shaped bruise still visible.

     Nabiki flinched at that.

     He continued, "There was a small danger, minuscule compared to continuing his arrogance.  Besides, I never lied, I merely failed to correct your misinterpretation.  That too assisted in my plan to educate Mister Saotome, as did this," he touched the bruise.  "Nothing else was as important as his survival."

     She felt ashamed, softened her tone, "You could have told me before . . . before I slap - hit you."

     "He had to believe it, I could trust Dr. Akagi to keep silent.  I had no certainty where your true feelings lay, so I couldn't take the chance."

     "My feelings?  What about between you and him?" her anger flashed back, and died as she looked at what she'd done the last time she'd let her anger go.

     He still hadn't looked up from his work, "No, whether you wanted what was best for him, or just didn't want him discomfited.  Were you a real friend, or a false one?"

     "So you didn't care what I thought about you?  What I did to you?!"

     "You and I do business, Miss Tendo, nothing more.  Our agreement is also to get you close to Mister Saotome, you two were wrestling on the floor when I left.  Your feelings towards me are immaterial, the chances of any of us surviving this elaborate farce are vanishingly small.  Whatever I need to do to enhance the others' survival, I'll do."  He turned to face her, his cold mask firmly in place, "Including yours."

     "What about your survival?" she asked, trying and failing to match his detached air.

     "Is my business, entirely.  Was there anything else?"  He leaned down and scooped the blank cartridges back into the box.

     "No," she said, "No, I guess not."

     He handed her the box, "Please return these to where you found them, before Saotome finds them," and returned to his paperwork.

     Nabiki sighed, headed back to the cabinet, she wished he'd just hit her.

May 26, 1947


     The man appeared old, white hair and craggy face, he was far older than he appeared, and as some had found out, the apparent age had nothing to do with how he could move or fight.

     The two chairs and small metal table sat in a circle of light amid the darkness, with luck, there would be no battle, just a negotiation.  He found it interesting that it was occurring on Memorial Day.  He set a small basket at one end of the table.

     The old man had arrived early, he was the younger, and was willing to show the forms of courtesy, to start with.

     The hooded figure arrived, examined the arrangements and the only other person in the area, "Brother Jonathan."

     "Yes, sir, and what should I can you?" Brother Jonathan asked.

     "Princeps," the man lowered his hood, or maybe it withdrew, he displayed a small metal wire basket, containing a bottle of amber liquid, setting it on the table.

     "First Citizen, eh."

     "I was here first," Princeps walked over to the flag standing where the twilight deepened to gloom, "Even they understood."

     It was a Gadsden flag, 'Don't Tread On Me'.  Brother Jonathan wanted an American flag, this was one, before the Stars and Stripes, he thought his guest would accept the compromise.

     Princeps was egg bald, no hair, no moustache, no eyebrows, not even eye lashes.  His skin was smooth and flawless, but he had the feeling of being ageless, rather than young.

     "Your people understood, they still do," Princeps told him, "What was it he said, 'We do not have to be enemies,' something like that?"

     "That's why I'm here," Brother Jonathan set a plate from the basket on the table, "I'm told you like corn, there is some dispute as to whether the best Johnny Cake comes from Georgia, or one of the two Carolinas, so I brought a selection."  He broke one of the loaves from the basket, placing them on the plate.

     "Likewise, my people have always been fine brewers and distiller.  I believe beer is still favored."  Princeps pulled two glasses from his sleeves, they looked like brandy snifters, "The Pilsner glass ruins the beer, allows the carbonation to go flat."

     Jonathan nodded, like his offering, Princeps poured the two glasses, allowing Jonathan to chose, while Princeps selected one of the proffered half-loaves.  Jonathan ate first, Princeps drank first, an elaborate dance between two who couldn't quite bring themselves to trust each other.

     Jonathan sat at the table, he had expected Princeps to sit also, instead his counterpart paced.  Dashing forward a handful of steps, with the speed of a striking rattlesnake, then pausing, before dashing back.  It was disconcerting to watch, and gave away how agitated he was.

     Jonathan considered taking advantage, then thought it might be an act, and if reports were correct, he'd need this alliance.

     "Not all are hostile to you, you know," Princeps told him, "Some of us, wish to be left alone.  We are patient, I am content that I had my time, and may again, your people . . . are not as bad as others consider you."

     "Forgive an old horse trader for wanting to get to the nub of the problem too quick," Jonathan said, "But there's just one of you - "

     "I represent others, as you do, this war was never between us.  Ironically, it is your own house that needs cleaning.  Have you heard what SEELE has done?"

     "Yup, it got me a mite worried," Jonathan agreed, "But I trust the kids, I've got good people with'em.  They'll make out all right."

     "My experience precludes such faith," Princeps told him, "The Crawling Chaos is not easily disregarded."

     "I think they'll outfox him, not outfight him," Jonathan told him, he was a little worried now, he'd hope to gain an ally, or at least reduce the number of enemies.  His counterpart looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Then he reminded himself it could all be an act.

     "Tell me something," Princeps sat down, refilled the glasses and tore into the cornbread, "In July of 1863, what did you feel?  Did you feel the chasm yawning between what had been before, and where you were going?"

     Jonathan considered, he was a lot younger then, the difference between who he was in 1861 and who he was in 1865 was immense, it set him firmly on the path he was on right now.  "It was . . . big," he admitted.

     "Yet your people stand within one step of world domination, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander, others, it's in your grasp now, why not seize it."

     "There's a big ole' word, hegemony, rule through similarity of ideals and influence."

     "First among equals?" Princeps gave a dry laugh, "It has never been tried before, not successfully anyway, I wish you luck."

     Jonathan nodded.

     "We have no desire to reign, or to rule either.  My people pass among yours, most without caring on either side.  Some are quite taken by your hopeful naivete.  Like you, we had our chance, unlike you, the Universe took it away from us."

     "My sympathies, frankly, if you don't mind cutting to the chase."

     "We are more patient, that doesn't mean we can't see the need for haste."

     "What do you want, and what's in it for us to give it to you?" Jonathan asked.  The stare from Princeps would have unnerved another, but Jonathan had a positive talent for turning the odds around, achieving the impossible and the unexpected.

     "The pilots absorb some little of what the EVAs take.  We offer, a small portion of that, freely, as if granting a wish.  Even a mere pittance of our power could do prodigies.  As for what we want, the alliance shields us, we will not stand idly by.  This is our home, has been our home and will be our home, now and in the future.  Some of us are willing to share, some hold your people in some esteem, myself especially."

     "May I ask why?" Jonathan was curious, it seemed completely out of character.

     Princeps leaned close, Jonathan could clearly make out the vertical pupils for the first time, smell the faint acrid smell of poison.  "Sublime reptiles, sir, the pinnacle be once sought, the creation of mammals," Princeps hissed, "Dragons."

     Gendo wasn't pleased.  SEELE had been moving against NERV and the pilots directly, after their repeated failures, they were sending an `inspector` to check on special projects.

     "Norris Attergate!  They might as well as well have told us his real name," Fuyutsuki said as he paced in front of Gendo's desk.

     Gendo agreed, as he rested his chin on his upraised hands, then had an idea, "Let him interview the pilots, from Sixth to First, then interview the senior staff."

     Fuyutsuki considered, "What do we tell the pilots?"

     "What do we tell, Rei?" Gendo corrected his friend.  Fuyutsuki sat down across from his ally, to consider what to `leak` about the inspector.

     Mara was in a foul mood, How did that pathetic human disrupt my plans?!  She walked through the streets of Tokyo, people seemed to sense her foul mood, her need to strike out, and they avoided her.

     The little man who deliberately stepped in front of her, was obviously stupid.

     Until she focused on him, and realized, it wasn't a man.

     "Well, messenger, I have a message for your sister and the rest of her brood at the temple," he told her.

     Mara bridled at this thing trying to link her with those pathetic goody-goods, and give her orders, "I think being a messenger is your job, not mine."  She considered blasting the thing to fragments, it seemed it was all there at the moment.  Except the collateral damage would be half the Asian landmass, as well as tsunamis that would inundate the entire western coast of the Americas, and the north and east coasts of Australia, and she knew the creature wouldn't hang around to receive the blast.  All those humans would see the wall of Hellfire or water, and have just enough time to curse or pray, and humans, tended to take the latter course when it was really important.  No, sending two billion humans straight to the Adversary, for the glory of killing this thing, the Lowerarchy would not be pleased with her.

     "You and the other camp followers of that hopped up Canaanite phantasm should know your betters, and follow their orders."

     "When I meet my betters, I might consider it.  Since you grovel so nicely," she enjoyed the grimace, while inwardly she was fuming, If the Adversary should strike you down right now, I would dance a jig in praise!  No mere phantasm could unravel the finest schemes of the sublime Lowerarchy.  She wondered why they didn't have any of the EVA pilots in their camp, Belldandy had two, they had none, having one now would be supremely useful, infuse the creature with a bit of her power, and let it destroy this foul thing, "Tell me your message, it might amuse me to deliver it."  She waited for it to start speaking, "Or not, it really depends," she interrupted.  She was pleased its smile was so forced.

     "Tell your fellow whore, that her attentions to the pilots are no longer necessary, or welcome.  She can trifle with her paramour . . . for as long as it amuses us."

     Mara didn't particularly like Keiichi, especially after he'd `accidentally` messed up her plans, but that was the Adversary for you, cheating through humans like that, and calling it coincidence and free will.  She knew if this creature hurt Keiichi, she didn't want to be in the star system where Belldandy found him, in another galaxy might be better, "Oh, I think I can tell you her answer," Mara's forced smile vanished, "She'd tell you to get lost.  I'd use a different verb."

     "Don't think you are beyond our reach.  You chose to be alone, and female.  Bad things happen to little girls, in the big, bad world."

     "I know, I AM one of those bad things," I hope Bell or her thralls crush you like an egg! Mara smiled as she seethed inwardly, "I'd assume you wouldn't have the time, no rest at the gate," she smiled brilliantly at it, "A blind mindless idiot, a moron who calls itself the Key and the Gate, but depends on someone else to open the door, how pathetic is that, and you, their most faithful slave.  A pat on the head, or whatever, for your most faithful service, they'll catch you, and they'll break you, again.  We remember the last time, so long ago, and we'll enjoy this time just as much.  The Host and the Hounds, Heaven and Hell, all united in ebullient laughter at the grasping, little minuscule.  We don't kill you, because you're just so funny."

     Mara enjoyed the fury of the creature, she would inform Belldandy, and her sisters, because it would disturb them, and frankly watching Urd and Skuld fumble through a counterstroke should brighten her mood considerably.  She stepped aside, let the creature continue to NERV, she wished she had a contact with the pilots, meeting that arrogant little fool with 4 EVA's would be amusing, even if they weren't strong enough to destroy him, they would drive him off ignominiously, and his pride would always be his downfall, Hubris, she thought, It might as well as his name.

     Mara hurried towards Belldandy and Keiichi's little temple, it wasn't often she could be `good` and cause such misery at the same time.